Denver Museum of Nature and Science will permanently close ‘harmful’ American Indian exhibit this summer

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Nov. 6, 2021.

Updated at 12:55 p.m. on May 18, 2023

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science's North American Indian Cultures exhibit “reinforces harmful stereotypes and white, dominant culture” and will close permanently this summer, according to an email the museum sent to members. 

The exhibit was first established in 1978, in collaboration with Indigenous representatives. A description of the exhibit on the museum’s website says visitors could see “authentic reconstructed dwellings, including an Inuit snow house, a Northwest Coast clan house, a Navajo hogan, and a Cheyenne tipi.” 

But the museum said despite that collaboration, the exhibit failed to avoid insensitive depictions of Native American culture. 

“Within this space, the Museum promotes racist stereotypes by portraying Indigenous people in dioramas as if they only exist in the past, using inaccurate names for sovereign nations (regardless of government recognition), and displaying their belongings without ongoing consent or respectful attribution,” said a statement now installed in front of the exhibit. 

Conversations around the exhibit’s closure have been ongoing for a while, but the proposal really picked up momentum over the last year, according to Chris Patrello, the museum’s assistant curator of anthropology.

“What we decided in partnership with Indigenous consultants was to host several listening sessions with members of Denver's Indigenous community, from a variety of backgrounds and ages, to determine what we should do about the hall,” Patrello said. “Through those conversations, we understood that the hall, as it currently exists, is problematic and that it's important to reckon with that.”

After the closure, the museum will work with Indigenous community members to redesign the exhibit. Visitors are invited to share feedback via a QR code outside the exhibit and on the museum’s website

Donna Chrisjohn, a Sicangu, Lakota and Diné consultant working with DMNS, praised the museum for working with Indigenous groups to discuss the closure of the exhibit. She hopes the future rework can speak to the institution’s mission, instead of being an out-of-place cultural display. 

“It is a museum of nature and science, so why not look toward nature and science in Indigenous communities and how are we science forward. Talk about our environmental work and advocacy sustainability efforts that we have had in place for tens of thousands of years,” Chrisjohn said. 

Patrello said there’s no timeline for when a redesigned exhibit will open.