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The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology removed nearly 40 Native American and Indigenous cultural objects from their displays to comply with new regulations from the Department of the Interior.
The Interior Department issued updated regulations in December requiring museums to receive consent from Native American and Indigenous tribes before displaying or researching cultural objects or human remains — which are covered under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act — by 2029.
In response to the regulations, which took effect Jan. 12, the Peabody closed the entire first and fourth floor and most of the exhibits on the third floor on Jan. 16 while the museum consulted with tribal leaders on which items should be removed.
When exhibits on the first floor reopened Monday, more than 30 objects — including many which were used in sacred or funerary ceremonies — had been removed and replaced with signs labeled “Items removed because of: Cultural Sensitivities.”
Some others had been removed from a third floor exhibit, which reopened Jan. 22.
In panel text titled “Ethical Stewardship in Action,” the Peabody wrote that the objects “may have been repatriated or returned to a community or they may be part of a cultural practice that should not be shared with the public”.
The removed objects include dolls representing spiritual deities from the Zuni tribe, which were rarely displayed in public per Zuni custom when the Peabody acquired them in 1905, and a feathered and beaded plague possibly from the Patwin band of the Wintun nation which was often used to commemorate the dead, contain sacred foods, and celebrate marriages.
An entire display of dance and ceremonial objects was removed from the Peabody’s California collection as well.
Anthropology professor Joseph P. Gone ’92, the faculty director of the Harvard University Native American Program, said though NAGPRA was “a really important way forward,” the new regulations were necessary to address its shortcomings.
Gone, a member of the Aaniiih-Gros Ventre tribal nation of Montana, said that the objects’ exhibition in the Peabody was a “testament to a very harrowing time in history” for Native American tribes.
“Others took advantage of that moment, and extracted all of those materials from us,” Gone said.
“This final rule represents some changes that are going to really make it possible to complete this important set of works that will help to remedy this long tawdry history in ways that will benefit the tribal communities,” he added.
After a 2022 University report revealed that the Peabody held the human remains of thousands of Native Americans, Harvard pledged to accelerate their return as required under NAGPRA. Last month, the museum announced it would fund travel expenses for tribal leaders to visit Harvard for repatriation efforts.
Though a fourth floor exhibit titled “All the World is Here” remains closed, all of the museum’s exhibits will reopen Feb. 17.
“We do look forward to the day when tribal communities can rest easier knowing that they've had their say, they've had their relationship and voice heard in these museum spaces and these ancestors and objects have gone home,” Gone said.
—Staff writer Neeraja S. Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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