Smithsonian’s New ‘Ethical Returns Policy’ Will Have Looted and Unethically Obtained Artwork Returned to Rightful Owners

Stolen Benin Sculptures/France24 YouTube

On Tuesday, The Smithsonian Institution announced a new policy that will have artwork that was looted or unethically procured returned to its rightful owners.

The museum’s new “ethical returns policy” will allow the Smithsonian to repatriate items acquired through means considered unethical by modern standards, The Art Newspaper reports. The policy will allow each of the institution’s 21 locations to decide how to handle artwork obtained through unethical acquisitions.

“Circumstances demonstrating unethical acquisition may include items that were stolen, taken under duress or removed without consent of the owner,” Smithsonian said in a statement.

The new policy seemingly combats the age-old practice many museums have held on to that allows them to claim rightful ownership of items in their holding.

“My goal was very simple: Smithsonian will be the place people point to, to say ‘This is how we should share our collections and think

about ethical returns,’” Lonnie G. Bunch III, the Smithsonian’s secretary, told the New York Times.

“The Smithsonian is this amazing wonder—this gift not just to the country but to the world. It’s really important that we provide leadership.”

The decision comes after the Smithsonian agreed to return its collection of Benin Bronzes to Nigeria in March, NPR reports. Some pieces

under review to return include pottery in the National Museum of Natural History that was sourced from a dig site in Turkey and dates back to the ancient city of Troy. Another piece includes a photo of a Black jazz musician in the National Museum of American History that many researchers “do not like the history of the photo,” a spokesperson said.

“When we talk about the shared stewardship of collections, what we are really talking about is a change of both scholarly practice and philosophy,” Kevin Gover, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for Museums and Culture, said.

“We seek to share what we know of our collections and to learn from the communities of origin in a collaborative exchange of knowledge.”