Chicago’s Field Museum has covered up some display cases of Native objects in its Ancient Americas and Northwest Coast and Arctic People exhibitions in adherence with updated regulations established by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The new set of rules, which went into effect Friday, January 12, include a key provision that requires museums to obtain informed consent from tribal or lineal descendants before they can research or display Native human remains, funerary or sacred objects, or artifacts that constitute cultural patrimony.
In a statement, the Field Museum confirmed its decision to cover “several display cases.” The institution has not yet responded to Hyperallergic‘s inquiry about which specific objects are no longer on view. “These display cases will remain covered while Museum staff continue to review existing information about these items and contact affiliated Tribes and NHOs for their input,” the statement reads.
Shannon O’Loughlin, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the chief executive and attorney for the Association on American Indian Affairs, said that the NAGPRA regulations signed into law in 1990 were “extremely confusing.”
“They had a lot of loopholes that institutions like the Field Museum utilized for their own benefit,” O’Loughlin told Hyperallergic.
One of the most glaring examples was a clause that allowed museums to classify human remains as “culturally unaffiliated” and subsequently put off addressing the possibility of their repatriation. O’Loughlin said the Field Museum, which holds one of the nation’s largest collections of Native remains, took advantage of this loophole “even though there is plenty of information to affiliate those ancestors with tribes.” (The Field Museum does not have any Native bodies on display, according to its recent press statement.)
Now, in order to research or display cultural artifacts, an institution must consult tribes and prove by a “preponderance of evidence” that it obtained the right of possession when it acquired an object.
“I would be surprised if there are any institutions that can show this for ancestors and their burial belongings,” O’Loughlin said, noting that most were obtained through “looting or other unconscionable acts.”
“They would need the free prior and informed consent of the deceased person or their family given before their death,” she continued. O’Loughlin also pointed out that even if a museum had purchased an artifact, the person who sold it would need to have had proper tribal authority.
Debra Yepa-Pappan, who is Jemez Pueblo and Korean and worked at the Field Museum from 2017 through 2023 before co-founding the Center for Native Futures, said she saw an understaffed repatriation team at the Chicago institution. During her tenure, Yepa-Pappan worked with community members to bring the museum’s Native Truths exhibition to fruition. The show, which opened last spring, spotlights the voices of Native people rather than presenting objects through an anthropological or archaeological lens.
“There were several occasions where I was with a Native person who specifically told me that we were looking at something that was on display shouldn’t be,” Yepa-Pappan told Hyperallergic. She expressed frustration that she was met with bureaucracy after alerting leadership to potential repatriations. “No one ever took responsibility or accountability for doing that,” she said.
“It’s hard to get institutions to comply,” O’Loughlin explained. “Most nations don’t have the resources to fight, so they do their best to work in collaboration with these institutions through negotiation and persuasion and other means to get them to act right.”
Hyperallergic is looking into whether other institutions plan to cover up displays in response to the NAGPRA update.