Smithsonian Adopts Policy on Ethical Returns in a Nod to Changing Norms

The Smithsonian Institution announced Tuesday that is has adopted a policy that will formally authorize its constituent museums to return items from their collections that were looted or were otherwise once acquired unethically.

The institution’s leaders said the policy, which took effect Friday, represents a shift away from the stance long taken by it and other museums, who had held the view that the legal right to own an item was sufficient justification to keep it.

“My goal was very simple: Smithsonian will be the place people point to, to say ‘This is how we should share our collections and think about ethical returns,’” Lonnie G. Bunch III, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, said in an interview. “The Smithsonian is this amazing wonder — this gift not just to the country but to the world. It’s really important that we provide leadership.”

In recent years, as conversations about racism and the legacy of colonialism have proliferated, the discussion about the repatriation of the artworks that were stolen, taken under duress or removed without the consent of their owners has intensified at cultural centers across the globe.

Where museums once argued they lacked the authority to return works given by donors or that the retention of artifacts promoted the widest appreciation of ancient cultures, the pendulum has swung toward restitution and repatriation.

With its new policy, the Smithsonian — which includes 21 museums and the National Zoo — is attempting to make a blunt acknowledgment that norms and best practices in the collecting world have changed, and that it is time for museums to catch up.

Last year, Smithsonian officials returned a gold disc featuring the shield of the city of Cusco to the Ministry of Culture in Peru. A collector had bought it from someone working in the country in 1912, officials said.

In March, the Smithsonian said it would return most of its 39 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria — more than a century after they were stolen during the British Army’s 1897 raid on the ancient Kingdom of Benin. Museum officials have said they consider the return of the Bronzes, a name that is used to cover a variety of artifacts, a clear example of a situation in which repatriation was appropriate. Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the Smithsonian will share exhibitions and work together on education programs as part of a broad agreement that includes the repatriation of the artworks, officials have said.

“No one ever expects everything to be taken away,” Bunch said.

“But I think it’s important to recognize that museums need to share authority,” he continued. “As you’re looking at returning materials, part of the conversation might be that the best place for materials might be in the museum.”

The policy grew out of discussions last year by a group of Smithsonian curators and collections specialists who were asked to consider whether the institution should develop a policy like the one it has now adopted.

The move falls under broader “collections management” rules that apply to all Smithsonian museums, officials said. But the institution’s collections are so diverse, the ethics policy’s implementation will need to be specifically tailored to each museum.

Officials made clear that although they have adopted the policy, they will not embark on a full inventory of the Smithsonian’s 157 million objects.

“The notion is to say, when we’re doing exhibitions, when we’re bringing in new collections, let us look at it through an ethical lens,” Bunch said. “Or, of course, if we hear from nations or communities about things, that will also trigger the kinds of research that will really allow us to make decisions about where is the best place for those collections.”

There are some items that have already caught curators’ attention.

The Smithsonian has a photo of a Black jazz musician in archives at the National Museum of American History that it got from a collector. But provenance researchers “do not like the history of the photo going back further” than that acquisition, said Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman for the institution.

In another instance, the National Museum of Natural History has pottery from an expedition site in Turkey that comes from the ancient city of Troy, she said. It is possible that Turkey will want to locate items like the pottery and eventually ask that they be returned, St. Thomas said.

In a publicly released Values and Principles Statement, the Smithsonian said: “We affirm the Smithsonian’s commitment to implement policies that respond in a transparent and timely manner to requests for return or shared stewardship.”

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