Smithsonian Adopts New ‘Ethical Returns Policy’ to Handle Artifacts with Problematic History

The Smithsonian Institution is adopting a new “ethical return policy” that will allow its museums to repatriate objects acquired in a way that might be considered unethical by modern standards.

Because the Smithsonian’s 21 institutions and sites vary widely – from contemporary art spaces like the Hirshhorn Museum to historical and educational museums like the National Museum of African American History and Culture or the National Air and Space Museum – the new policy will allow each of the institutions to establish their own criteria for handling unethical acquisitions, as well as a set of unique procedures for the disposal of objects and collections. The Smithsonian’s board of trustees will, however, step in “when the objects have significant monetary, research or historical value, or when disposal could be of significant public interest,” according to a statement..

When ethical dilemmas regarding museum holdings have arisen in the past, most Western institutions have responded by claiming that they are the legal owners of the objects, and therefore justified in keeping them. The Smithsonian statement explicitly says that morality, in such cases, should supersede legality surrounding such property issues, and that such inquiries should be navigated with a modern moral compass rather than relying on potentially anachronistic laws.

“My goal was very simple: The 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 from the Smithsonian. New York Times. “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 March, the Smithsonian said it would return most of its 39 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, masterpieces stolen by the British military in 1897 before being distributed in the global north. Because so many institutions have bronzes from Benin in their collections, they have served as catalysts for broader discussions about the repatriation of objects of unethical origin, as museums in Europe and North America wondered what to do with the looted treasures. The conversation took on a heightened sense of urgency in recent years when it was announced that construction of the David Adjaye-designed Edo West African Art Museum was underway in Benin City, Nigeria, and that it planned to contain “the most comprehensive exhibition in the world”. World of Benin Bronzes”.

According the temperatureitems already under consideration include pottery held by the National Museum of Natural History, which comes from an excavation site in Turkey and originally dates back to the ancient city of Troy, and a photo of a black jazz musician owned by the National Museum of American History, whose provenance researchers “don’t like the story of the photo,” according to a spokesperson for the institution.

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