A museum is commonly defined by its artifacts, artworks and scientific specimens. These wonders capture the public’s imagination and make research, exhibitions and scholarship possible. But today we must consider not only what museum collections are and what they can do, but also where they come from. For more than a century, collections were amassed in ways that are no longer acceptable. Objects were often removed using practices now considered unethical. Sometimes they were outright looted, taken as spoils of conquest.
Although artifacts of questionable provenance may legally belong to a museum, how they were first acquired matters, even decades or centuries later. For years, the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of the American Indian, governed by the National Museum of the American Indian Act, have worked to restore or return Native American human remains and cultural items. Until now, however, we have never put in place an institution-wide ethical returns policy.
In 2021, the Smithsonian asked a group of collections specialists and curators to examine how to make ethical concerns central to our ongoing stewardship of Smithsonian collections. The group’s recommendations, with overwhelming support from the collections community, went into effect at the end of April. The new policy authorizes our museums to enter arrangements to share authority, expertise and responsibility for objects’ care and return certain objects based on how and under what circumstances they were acquired. Unethical acquisition could include an object having been stolen, taken under duress or removed without the owner’s consent.
The first return under consideration is a set of objects dating from the 13th century removed by the British during an 1897 raid of Benin City in what is now the nation of Nigeria. These artifacts, known as the Benin bronzes, were donated to or acquired by numerous museums over the years, including the National Museum of African Art. Of the 39 pieces in its collection, 29 have been confirmed or determined likely to have been looted, and pending approval by the Smithsonian Board of Regents, will be returned to the Nigerian government.
This effort resonates with audiences who expect institutions to act ethically. As the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, we are obligated to live up to the highest ideals. By better identifying the provenance of objects in our collections and returning any that rightfully belong to someone else, we can ensure that the Smithsonian sets the standard for ethical action.