The Smithsonian Institution announced a new policy to allow its museums to return items that were looted or acquired by unethical means, The Hill reports. It has already developed plans to return most of its collection of Benin Bronzes to Nigeria under the new policy. Lonnie Bunch, Smithsonian Secretary, addressed the new policy in a statement released on Tuesday. “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,” Bunch’s explained.
According to the new policy, which was adopted last week, several Smithsonian museums “will return some items from its collections based on ethical considerations including how items were acquired and the context of their display.” All 20 Smithsonian sites and the National Zoo will be affected by the policy.
“Among these obligations is to consider, using our contemporary moral norms, what should be in our collections and what should not,” the statement continued. “This new policy on ethical returns is an expression of our commitment to meet these obligations. Circumstances demonstrating unethical acquisition may include items that were stolen, taken under duress, or removed without the consent of the owner."
"Because the collections are so diverse — from spacecraft to fine art — implementation will be specifically tailored to each museum and its collections,” the organization noted in its news release on the policy changes.
Over the past few years, several museums and other institutions have been under fire about how racism and colonialism have played a part in the procurement of items. Last month, Smithsonian responded by establishing an “Ethical Returns Working Group” “to review policies about the ethical return of items from its collections." The museum also stated that human remains acquired without the consent of the deceased individual are particularly concerning.
“Regardless of prior consent and whatever their context in place and time, we believe that all human remains must be treated with dignity and respect, as those once living, and not objectified as a scientific resource, and we are committed to the ethical return or shared stewardship of human remains whenever possible,” the museum’s values statement reads. “We affirm the Smithsonian’s commitment to implement policies that respond in a transparent and timely manner to requests for return or shared stewardship.”