The Smithsonian Institution announced on Tuesday that it has adopted a policy that will formally authorize its constituent museums to return objects from their collections that have been looted or were once acquired unethically.
The institution’s leaders said the policy, which took effect on Friday, represents a shift from the position long taken by it and other museums, which had held that the legal right to own an object was sufficient justification to keep it.
“My goal was very simple: Smithsonian will be the place people go to say, ‘This is how we should share our collections and think about ethical returns,'” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. a meeting. “The Smithsonian is this incredible wonder – this gift not just to the country but to the world. It’s really important that we show leadership.
In recent years, as conversations about racism and the legacy of colonialism have grown, the discussion about the repatriation of works of art that have been stolen, taken under duress or removed without the consent of their owners has grown. is intensified in cultural centers around the world.
Where museums once argued they lacked the power to return works donated by donors or that conserving artifacts fostered the broadest 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 trying to bluntly acknowledge that standards and best practices in the world of collecting have changed and it’s time for museums to catch up. .
Last year, Smithsonian officials returned a gold record representing the coat of arms of the city of Cusco at the Ministry of Culture of Peru. A collector had bought it from someone working in the country in 1912, officials said.
In March, the Smithsonian announced it would return most of its 39 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, more than a century after they were stolen in the 1897 British army raid on the former kingdom of Benin. Museum officials said they considered the return of the bronzes, a name used to cover a variety of artifacts, a clear example of a situation in which repatriation was appropriate. The Nigerian National Museums and Monuments Commission and the Smithsonian will share exhibits and work together on educational programs as part of a broad agreement that includes the repatriation of artworks, officials said.
“Nobody ever expects it all to be washed away,” Bunch said.
“But I think it’s important to recognize that museums have to share authority,” he continued. “When considering returning materials, part of the conversation might be that the best place for the 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 that the implementation of the ethics policy will have to be specifically adapted to each museum.
Officials have made it clear that while they have embraced the policy, they will not embark on a full inventory of the Smithsonian’s 157 million artifacts.
“The idea is to say, when we put on exhibitions, when we bring in new collections, let’s look at them through an ethical lens,” Bunch said. “Or, of course, if we hear nations or communities talking about things, that will also trigger the kind of research that will really allow us to make decisions about where the best place for these collections should be.”
Certain elements have already caught the attention of the curators.
The Smithsonian has a photo of a black jazz musician in the archives of the National Museum of American History that it obtained from a collector. But provenance researchers “don’t like that the photo’s history goes back any further” than that acquisition, said Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman for the institution.
In another case, 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’s possible that Turkey will want to locate items like the pottery and possibly request that they be returned, St. Thomas said.
In a public statement of values and principles, the Smithsonian said, “We affirm the Smithsonian’s commitment to implementing policies that transparently and promptly respond to requests for return or shared stewardship.”