Smithsonian Adopts Landmark Policy on Ethical Restitution

A new policy announced last Friday, April 29 by the Smithsonian Institution (SI) gives its constituent museums the authority to return items in their collections that were looted or otherwise acquired under unethical circumstances.

The SI is formalizing a policy that was originally recommended by the Ethical Returns Working Group, comprised of Smithsonian curators and collections specialists, after a six-month review of the institution’s collecting policy to bring it in line with shifting standards surrounding restitution and returns. Museums will now be able to initiate returns and enter shared stewardship agreements based on ethical considerations, even when there is nothing that legally impels them to do so.

Previously, the Smithsonian held that they were entitled to retain an artifact so long as its provenance rested on solid legal ground.

“The new policy is a cultural shift in traditional concepts of possession, ownership, and stewardship of collections,” Bill Tompkins, director of the Smithsonian’s National Collections Program, told Hyperallergic. “It reflects a change in how the Smithsonian will manage its collections by returning collections when appropriate to their community of origin after considering the circumstances under which they were acquired. The policy also acknowledges our commitment to sharing authority for the stewardship and interpretation of collections with the communities represented by them.”

The text of the new policy recognizes that over the decades, the Smithsonian has assembled its collections from sources ranging from individuals, communities, Indigenous peoples, for-profit institutions, and governments — and that attitudes surrounding how to go about collecting cultural heritage have changed in this time.

“Although the Smithsonian has legal title or custody of collections it holds in trust for the benefit of the public, continued retention or sole stewardship of collections may cause harm to such communities and be fundamentally inconsistent with the Smithsonian’s ethical standards and institutional values,” the text reads. The policy specifies unethical circumstances of acquisition as “coercion, duress, assertion of power, or forcible taking.”

In addition to green-lighting shared stewardship arrangements and returns that its institutions hope to pursue, the SI is also requiring that each of them transparent and efficient for descendants, communities, and other parties to make requests on contested objects.

Under 600 words in length, the policy is a vague blueprint, not a detailed plan on how the consortium of museums, libraries, and research centers will return items in their collections. The latter task will be left to the collections team at each respective institution. In a press release, the SI explained that “because the collections are so diverse — from spacecraft to fine art — implementation will be specifically tailored to each museum and its collections.”

For now, SI Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III indicated that the Smithsonian would not be comprehensively reevaluating its holdings, which number approximately 157 million, but would rather be monitoring objects as they are shown in exhibitions and as concerns are raised. In March, the Smithsonian indicated that it would be returning most of its collection of 39 Benin bronzes, initiating a collaboration with Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments that will involve the repatriation, co-sponsored exhibitions, and educational programming.

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