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Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns

Care of the national collections is a core mission of the Smithsonian Institution. The collections are vast and diverse covering the worlds of history, art, culture and science. Many artifacts and works of art have been in the Smithsonian’s holdings for decades or, in some cases, more than a century and a half.  We recognize that ethical norms and professional best practices related to collecting have changed, particularly with respect to collecting cultural heritage from individuals and communities, and that the Smithsonian has collections it would not have acquired under present-day standards.

In 2021, a group of Smithsonian curators and collections specialists considered whether the Smithsonian should develop a formal policy that would allow shared stewardship arrangements and the return of collections based on ethical considerations. The group’s recommendation, adopted as policy April 29, 2022, authorizes Smithsonian museums to return collections, in appropriate circumstances, based on ethical considerations, including consideration of the manner in which a collection was originally acquired and the context of its acquisition. Circumstances demonstrating unethical acquisition can include, for example, items that were stolen, taken under duress or removed without consent of the owner.

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