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Some western Mass. museums pull objects from display after new federal rules require tribal consent

A file photo of the Springfield Museums in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Springfield Museums
A file photo of the Springfield Museums in Springfield, Massachusetts.

New federal regulations went into effect this month that require museums to get consent from Native tribes before displaying objects that are culturally important. The rules also require tribal consent before museums allow access to the items or conduct research on them.

The law applies to cultural items, meaning funerary objects from burial sites, sacred objects connected to religious practice, and objects of cultural patrimony — meaning objects that collectively belong to a tribe, community or family.

The rules also apply to Native ancestral remains in museums' collections.

Shannon O'Loughlin, CEO and attorney for the Association on American Indian Affairs, said the new rules clarify existing federal repatriation law, know as NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which went into effect in 1990.

O'Loughlin pointed out that the new rules used terms from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"What is incredibly amazing about the new regulations is [they] specifically use[s] the terms 'free, prior and informed consent,'" she said. "So, no longer will institutions be able to do research on ancestors, and other things, without first consulting and obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of the Native nations that are affiliated with those ancestors and cultural items."

Western Massachusetts reaction

In response, several western Massachusetts museums have stopped exhibiting certain items.

Mount Holyoke College Art Museum removed two Native objects from display.

"The objects' empty cases have been left on view with new labels explaining the new NAGPRA rules." Mount Holyoke said in a statement. "The Museum felt this approach would create invaluable teaching opportunities for students and visitors alike. The original labels, which were written by contemporary Tribal makers, have been left on view."

Mount Holyoke said all funerary objects in both its art museum and the Joseph Allen Skinner Museum are no longer on display. The Skinner Museum is closed. The college said before it reopens, it will consult with tribes about its displays.

The Springfield Museums removed items from its Native Hall and plans to consult with tribes about them. It does have permission from tribal representatives to exhibit other objects.

The Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield, part of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, is closed until May.

"We are using this time to review the updated NAGPRA regulations as they relate to our collections," the museum said. "This work is being led by the PVMA Council's Collections Committee, which includes Indigenous representation."

Meanwhile, Historic Deerfield said it stopped displaying Native objects some time ago, well before the new regulations.

Regulations underscore goal of 'close connection with the culture'

The Yale Peabody Museum, in New Haven, is closed for renovations and plans to reopen this spring. Director David Skelly said the museum is asking Native groups for their thoughts on objects planned for the exhibition that came from their communities.

"To see from their perspective how they're interpreting these new regulations, what it means for them and how they want to move forward," he said.

Skelly said well before the new rules, the museum has been working closely with Indigenous groups "on how and whether objects should be displayed in a museum like ours."

"What was true before the new regulations came out and what is true going forward is that when you're sharing a culture with people who are coming into a museum, you want to be in close connection with that culture. You want people from that culture to be helping you share what you're trying to share. That hasn't changed," Skelly said.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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