New Smithsonian Policy Allows Museums To Return Stolen Artifacts

Germany To Return Benin Bronzes

A military commander sculpture looted by British soldiers from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 hangs on display in the "Where Is Africa" exhibition at the Linden Museum on May 05, 2021, in Stuttgart, Germany. Photo: Getty Images

The Smithsonian Institution announced a major change amidst worldwide conversations about how racism and colonialism have affected collections of cultural artifacts.

The popular institution says they're adopting a new policy that will allow its museums to return items that were unethically obtained. This applies to items that were looted, stolen, or taken without the consent of owners, according to The New York Times. The policy went into effect on April 29.

"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 secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, told reporters. “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.”

Museums and similar institutions have long argued that they have to legal right to own an item, which was enough to justify hanging onto questionably-acquired artifacts. They also claimed they don't have the authority to return items given by donors, or that showing them off promotes appreciation of that culture. Now, the discussion seems to be shifting toward repatriation, or the return of something to the original country.

Earlier this year, the Smithsonian promised to return most of its 39 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. These items were reportedly pilfered during the British Army's 1897 raid on the ancient Kingdon of Benin.

"Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the Smithsonian will share exhibitions and work together on education programs as part of a broad agreement that includes the repatriation of the artworks," NYT learned from officials familiar with the project.

Even though this policy applies to all 21 museums under the Smithsonian brand, they're not going to go through all 157 million objects in their possession.

“The notion is to say, when we’re doing exhibitions, when we’re bringing in new collections, let us look at it through an ethical lens,” Bunch explains. “Or, of course, if we hear from nations or communities about things, that will also trigger the kinds of research that will really allow us to make decisions about where is the best place for those collections.”

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