Smithsonian puts ethics at the forefront of new returns policy - Museums Association

Smithsonian puts ethics at the forefront of new returns policy

Restitution claims will consider ethical concerns over legal circumstances of acquisition
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington DC
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington DC Smithsonian Institution

A new policy adopted by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC will see it handle restitution claims based on ethical considerations.

The US institution, which oversees 21 museums and a zoo, incorporated the formal returns policy across all of its museums on 29 April.

Announcing the policy this week, the Smithsonian said: “We recognise that ethical norms and best practices in collecting have changed, particularly with respect to collecting cultural heritage from individuals and communities, and that the Smithsonian has collections it would not have acquired under present-day standards.” 

The policy was recommended by a working group of around 20 Smithsonian curators and historians, who convened last year to consider the institution's approach to restitution.

Working group’s Values and Principles Statement
  • We believe that past acquisitions raising ethical concerns should be investigated and addressed in a manner consistent with current ethical standards.
  • We believe that the strongest organisations value and incorporate diverse knowledge, narratives, and perspectives.
  • We believe that the most informed and connected organisations are aware of and participate in national and international discussions and standards on topics relating to collections stewardship and all forms of scholarship.

Under the institution's previous policy, museums were not obliged to return collections that were acquired legally. The new criteria will see museums consider the ethical circumstances of acquisition when dealing with requests for restitution or shared stewardship.

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The Smithsonian said: “The manner in which a collection was originally acquired and the context of its acquisition are important considerations. Circumstances demonstrating unethical acquisition may include items that were stolen, taken under duress or removed without consent of the owner.”

Implementation of the policy will be tailored to specific institutions to take into account the diversity of the Smithsonian's collections. Each museum will establish its own criteria and procedure for returning objects.

“There is a growing understanding at the Smithsonian and in the world of museums generally that our possession of these collections carries with it certain ethical obligations to the places and people where the collections originated,” said Smithsonian secretary Lonnie Bunch.

“Among these obligations is to consider, using our contemporary moral norms, what should be in our collections and what should not. This new policy on ethical returns is an expression of our commitment to meet these obligations.”

“When we talk about the shared stewardship of collections, what we are really talking about is a change of both scholarly practice and philosophy,” said Kevin Gover, the Smithsonian’s under secretary for museums and culture. “We seek to share what we know of our collections and to learn from the communities of origin in a collaborative exchange of knowledge.”

The Smithsonian said it was committed to responding to requests for return or shared stewardship “in a transparent and timely manner”.

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In March this year the Smithsonian revealed that it was planning to repatriate most of its 39 Benin bronzes to Nigeria, a decision it said was rooted in the then-unpublished ethical returns policy. The institution may continue to display some of the bronzes on long-term loan with guidance from Nigerian curators.

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