Last week, the Smithsonian Institution adopted a new policy that now allows its museums to return items that were looted. The Smithsonian started the process of reexamining their unethically acquired items last year—a fact they address in a statement posted on their website:
“In 2021, a group of Smithsonian curators and collections specialists considered whether the Smithsonian should develop a formal policy that would allow shared stewardship arrangements and the return of collections based on ethical considerations. The group’s recommendation, now adopted as policy, authorizes Smithsonian museums to return collections, in appropriate circumstances, based on ethical considerations.”
The policy is effective in all of its 20 museum sites, including the National Zoo.
Last April, the Smithsonian started an “Ethical Returns Working Group” to evaluate policies about the honorable return of items from its collections. According to its revised values statement, Smithsonian leadership acknowledge the difference between legal and normal guidelines when receiving and displaying items.
“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 in the same statement.
“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.”
The values statement explains that past acquisitions that raise ethical concerns should be investigated/addressed, that organizations are its strongest when it values diversity and that institution is responsible for participating in national and internal discussions on collections stewardship. Over the years, certain artifacts found at various museums have raised questions about racism and colonialism. The Smithsonian’s initiative is certainly a step in the right direction.