Reshaping Cultural Exhibitions: Museums Respond to NAGPRA Overhaul 


By Jeannette Carrington  

In a sweeping response to new federal regulations, the Saint Louis Art Museum and Missouri History Museum, along with other prominent museums across the United States, have begun closing or modifying exhibits that feature Native American objects. This move comes as institutions aim to align with the Biden administration’s recent overhaul of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). 

The updated regulations, which were announced last December, mandate a more systematic process for the return of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony to lineal descendants, Native tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations. The changes are designed to strengthen the authority and role of Indigenous communities in the repatriation process and require institutions to defer more to tribes’ knowledge of their regions and histories. 

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City has closed its Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains Halls, which housed thousands of Native American artifacts. Its museum president, Sean Decatur, stated that the halls were “artifacts of an era when museums such as ours did not respect the values, perspectives, and shared humanity of Indigenous peoples.” The closures have resulted in almost 10,000 square feet of exhibition space being off-limits to visitors. 

The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and other institutions have also taken similar steps, covering several displays of tribal items as they consult with tribes and evaluate their compliance with the new regulations. 

The move sparked a mix of reactions. Some visitors expressed disappointment and think that the absence of these displays robs people of the chance to learn about a culture of great historical importance to the country. Others have criticized the museum for the abruptness of the closures, wishing for more advance notice to allow for a proper farewell to the exhibits. 

Locally, the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) has been minimally affected by the new federal regulations. Molly Morris, Communications Manager says that the bulk of the NAGPRA regulation change has to do with Native American human remains.  

“The Saint Louis Art Museum collection does not contain any Native American human remains,” said Molly Morris. “We have deinstalled a small number of Mississippian objects due to regulation changes affecting how certain funerary or sacred items can be displayed. SLAM has been in compliance with NAGPRA for over two decades, and the museum is continuing to closely work with Native American tribes on how to best present works from their communities.” 

Some Native American items were removed from their History Clubhouse exhibit and several of their exhibits that are in the planning phase are going to include more input from Tribal Nations. 

“When we knew the changes were coming, we made the commitment to review our NAGPRA compliance, rewrite our collections policies, and to hire a Curator of Indigenous Collections to oversee our NAGPRA work,” said Amanda Cooper, the Objects Preservation Administrator for The Missouri History Museum. “A complete review of past NAGPRA work was done by the Registration and Collections Management departments and new collections policies were reviewed and approved by our board last year. We are currently interviewing for the Curator position and hope to have that person leading a renewed commitment to NAGPRA by the institution.” 

Cooper believes that the changes are largely positive and that it is especially important to recognize the knowledge that comes from Native American sources when it comes to the identification and interpretation of artifacts. 

“We are confident we can meet all of the new deadlines and update our federal paperwork in the timelines required and we are excited to bring on a new Curator to oversee this important work,” said Cooper. “We also believe that the Federal guidelines are simply a starting point and there are opportunities to go further than the law and to forge new lasting relationships with Tribal partners.” 

The Biden administration’s push for these changes reflects a broader effort to address historical injustices and to foster a more respectful and collaborative relationship between federal agencies, museums, and Indigenous communities. The revised NAGPRA regulations are seen as a critical step in this direction, emphasizing the importance of Indigenous knowledge and consent in the stewardship and interpretation of cultural heritage. 

The Missouri History Museum does not have any Indigenous Americans on its staff or board, but they hope that changes in the future. Their future curator of indigenous collections will be reaching out to tribes for introductions when they begin.  

“The tribe we have worked with the most in recent months is the Osage,” said Cooper. “They are located in Oklahoma but do visit St. Louis on occasion. We go through their historic preservation office, and they have a lot of great resources on their website.” 

As museums navigate these new requirements, the landscape of cultural exhibitions is set to undergo significant transformation. Cooper states that the biggest change has been for their researchers.  

“New federal regulations require permission from Tribal Representatives before a potentially NAGPRA eligible item can be handled or researched,” said Cooper. “Until we go through the consultation process, we don’t have a clear picture of what is NAGPRA eligible. So, for now, we are limiting most of our collection for research. Some researchers are understanding while others are frustrated. Overall, I believe the more our visitors learn about NAGPRA the more they will see it having a positive impact.” 

The closures and adaptations of these exhibits mark a pivotal moment in the relationship between museums and Native American communities, one that is being watched closely by cultural institutions and Indigenous groups alike. 

For more information about the Osage tribe that the Missouri History Museum works with, visit 

For more information about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) visit 

About Jeannette Carrington

Jeannette is Editor-in-Chief. She is pursuing a degree in Graphic Design and a certificate in Photography. After graduation, she plans to expand her photography and graphic design business.
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