Front Page Talking Points


Museums across U.S. scramble to make amends for collecting that sometimes was looting


1.gifCheck the paper's archive for an article about a tribe in your state or region. Name it.

2.gifCan you find coverage of a museum or similar attraction? Why is it in the news?

3.gifLook for a cultural event listing or story. Are you interested?

History museums promote themselves as protectors of cultural rarities such as ancient jewels, carvings, ceramics, textiles and worship items. But some also are keepers of plundered treasures taken by colonial explorers, soldiers, dealers and smugglers. Foreign government complaints, legal claims and a new U.S. Interior Department policy have focused attention on displays of heirlooms from Native American tribes and past civilizations in Africa, Asia and South America. As traditional collecting practices are recast as looting, embarrassed museum executives are reviewing how artifacts were acquired and, in some cases, returning them.

A major shift at some leading U.S. museums is visible to visitors. Sites around the country recently began covering displays as curators scramble to comply with a new federal requirement for tribal permission to display or do research on cultural items. The American Museum of Natural History, a New York City landmark, last month closed two major halls and covered other displays. The Field Museum in Chicago hides some exhibits under tarps. A Harvard University museum is removing all funeral objects from view, and the Cleveland Museum of Art has covered certain cases. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York withdrew about 20 musical instruments. And in Colorado last summer, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science closed its North American Indian Cultures Hall because it "reinforces harmful stereotypes and white, dominant culture."

The process of identifying museum objects that were stolen, and then returning them to tribes or countries, is called "repatriation (pronounced RHEE-PAHT-wry-Ashun). Part of the current urgency is fueled by a broader effort at museums and universities to right historical wrongs. Holdings of Native American human remains are often linked to grave robbing, archaeological excavation and development on burial grounds. Another driver is the Biden administration, which wants to accelerate the repatriation process. Undisplayed remains of more than 96,000 Native American individuals continue to be held in institutions that include large museums and tiny local historical societies. The federal government has given institutions until 2029 to prepare those remains and their burial belongings for repatriation. As European institutions also feel pressure to return cultural treasures taken during colonial occupations over the past 300 years, two British museums will return looted artifacts to Ghana in Africa.

Museum leader says: "The halls we are closing are artifacts of an era when museums such as ours did not respect the values, perspectives and shared humanity of Indigenous peoples. . . . Some objects may never come back on display.” -- Sean Decatur, president of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan

Native American says: "We're finally being heard — and it's not a fight, it's a conversation.” -- Myra Masiel-Zamora, archaeologist and curator with the Pechanga Band of Indians in Riverside, Calif.

Advocate for tribes says: "No longer will institutions be able to do research on ancestors and other things without first consulting and obtaining the consent of the Native nations that are affiliated with those ancestors and cultural items." -- Shannon O'Loughlin, head of the Association on American Indian Affairs in Rockville, Md.

Front Page Talking Points is written by Alan Stamm for NIEonline.com, Copyright 2024

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SL.CCS.1/2/3/4 Grades 6-12: An essay of a current news event is provided for discussion to encourage participation, but also inspire the use of evidence to support logical claims using the main ideas of the article. Students must analyze background information provided about a current event within the news, draw out the main ideas and key details, and review different opinions on the issue. Then, students should present their own claims using facts and analysis for support.