Andover Newton Theological School, an affiliate of the Yale Divinity School, announced Thursday that it has transferred ownership of a collection of more than 1,000 cultural and artistic works — including 156 Native American items — to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

With the transfer, the Peabody Essex Museum, which has housed the Andover Newton collection since 1946, will assume responsibility for the repatriation process required under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a federal law designed to help return Native American cultural objects to their tribal owners.

Andover Newton started formal conversations with the Peabody Essex Museum regarding a potential transfer of the collection in late spring this year, according to President of Andover Newton Martin Copenhaver DIV ’80, just months before the Divinity School and Andover Newton established a formal affiliation. Despite the affiliation, Yale’s Peabody Museum declined a transfer of the collection.

“The Peabody Essex is the ideal location for our collection,” Copenhaver said. “It is a world-class museum with a great deal of experience with the different cultures represented in our collection.”

The relationship between the Peabody Essex Museum and the Andover Newton Theological School has faced significant strain over the past two years. In 2015, amid financial struggles that ultimately led to its affiliation with the Divinity School, Andover Newton appraised Native American items in its collection to explore the possibility of selling them. In a New York Times story in May, CEO and Director of the Peabody Essex Dan Monroe was quoted as calling the decision to appraise those items a “break of trust.” Peabody Essex had spent a great deal of time, energy and money to display and care for the collection, Monroe told the News, and it did not do so simply to transfer those works into private hands.

After warning the Andover Newton board that selling items in its collection could violate the law, Monroe notified Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute and member of the Tlingit tribe, about the potential sale. Worl requested a NAGPRA compliance investigation from the Department of the Interior, which found that Andover Newton was subject to NAGPRA and thus in violation of the law.

Andover Newton changed course in the wake of the federal warning, sending a description of each item in its collection to almost 300,400 Native American tribes throughout the country, per NAGPRA requirements. Andover Newton’s commitment to the repatriation process helped rebuild the relationship between Andover Newton and Peabody Essex, Copenhaver said.

The agreement reached by Peabody Essex and Andover Newton represents a “renewal” in the decades-long partnership between the two institutions, Monroe said.

“There is no question that there have been times in the past when our relationship with the [Peabody Essex] has been strained,” Copenhaver said. “For some time now, however, it has been clear that we are working toward the same goals — to treat these cultural objects, and the cultures from which they come, with utmost respect.”

But the process has taken more than two years, leading to another warning letter from the Department of the Interior in May. Copenhaver, who blamed this delay on Andover Newton’s lack of resources, wanted to transfer the collection to an institution with a greater capacity to comply with NAGPRA. Peabody Essex has one of the oldest and most comprehensive collections of Native American objects in the world, and Monroe is well-versed in NAGPRA, having helped draft the law in 1990.

“The collection has resided at the Peabody Essex Museum for many years. While it could have moved, there is justice in giving it to a museum that has housed it,” Dean of the Divinity School Greg Sterling said. “Perhaps more importantly, the director of the museum is an expert on NAGPRA and should be able to handle the items that require repatriation justly and efficiently.”

Monroe noted that he was “surprised” by Copenhaver’s offer, but both Copenhaver and Monroe described the negotiation process as extremely easy. As part of the agreement between the two institutions, Peabody Essex will allow free access to the Andover Newton collection for scholars studying the history of Andover Newton and friends and alumni of the school.

Andover Newton has begun contacting the tribes that have responded to its invitation for consultation, and Peabody Essex will reach out to about 300 other tribes to which the invitation was sent to notify them about the transfer of ownership. According to Copenhaver, the two institutions have kept NAGPRA officials informed at various stages in the transfer process to ensure that the arrangement was in full compliance with the law.

Worl said she was “elated” with the agreement, and she expressed her gratitude to members of the media, who she said were “instrumental” in persuading Andover Newton to enter this agreement with Peabody Essex.

Monroe hopes that Andover Newton’s story will compel other institutions with collections of Native American art and culture to understand and comply with the law.

“I would hope that this experience will serve as a motivation for [institutions] to look very hard at whether or not they are subject to NAGPRA and understand that they can and should move to take action to come into compliance with the law, with support and assistance from the Department of the Interior,” Monroe said.

In addition to Native American works, the Andover Newton collection includes objects from around the world, including beaded Zulu adornments, earthenware vessels from the Middle East, basketry and textiles from India, silk embroidery from China and musical instruments from Myanmar.

Adelaide Feibel |