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Why the American Museum of Natural History is closing some Native American exhibits


The American Museum of Natural History, a giant museum in New York City, has closed some of its areas featuring Native American artifacts. Many museums have done this to comply with new federal rules intended to speed the return of remains and sacred items under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Sean Decatur is the museum's president in New York City, and I started by asking why a museum of natural history has artifacts relating to people.

SEAN DECATUR: If you think of the larger mission of this museum and natural history museums in general, it's really to tell the broader story, the history of the planet, which includes, of course, people. I think it's also important to recognize that natural history museums also came from a particular point in history where the narratives being presented, the work and scholarship being done in museums like this paradigm that reinforced racial hierarchies.

INSKEEP: If it can be done in an intellectually honest way and in a respectful way, is it, at least in the abstract, a good idea that you would continue to display artifacts from Native cultures and the history of Native cultures?

DECATUR: We do have, for example, spaces in the museum that have been updated. You know, the museum's curators and exhibition staff worked in close collaboration with curators from Indigenous groups, from the Indigenous nations of those areas. And that included, examination of which objects should stay in the museum and which objects should be returned to the tribal nations. It included close collaboration on what should be displayed and how they should be displayed, and how the stories should be presented. And to me, actually, perhaps most importantly, it includes a connection between the current thriving cultures there and the story of resilience of the Indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest and the historic artifacts, emphasizing that these are still living cultures.

INSKEEP: I could imagine mixed feelings on your part about having to take things off display and deny them to people and remove some of your exhibits. Do you have any such mixed feelings?

DECATUR: From my view, this is actually a reflection of the fact that museums are not these things that are fixed forever in time. Our mission, in fact, is to discover, to interpret and disseminate knowledge. And interpretations of knowledge change over time. And we're at a point, very rightly so, I think, where the frameworks in which we discuss and talk about Indigenous peoples have shifted, that we no longer find it acceptable to talk about or create these narratives without the input and consultation and collaboration with the communities in which we are presenting. And so it feels absolutely appropriate for us to make the changes to the museum that move us towards that type of collaborative presentation on these cultures, as opposed to a one-sided presentation.

INSKEEP: Sean Decatur of the American Museum of Natural History. Thanks so much.

DECATUR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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