‘Largest’ US museum considers returning looted artworks — Analysis

Smithsonian Museum acknowledges that many of the oldest artifacts in its collection were illegally obtained.

The Smithsonian Museum has officially admitted many of its celebrated collections were obtained unethically – essentially looted – in a statement published on Tuesday. Observing that “many artifacts and works of art have been in the Smithsonian’s holdings for decades or, in some cases, more than 150 years,” the museum acknowledged that “The ethical standards and best practices for collecting have evolved, especially in relation to cultural heritage collection from individual and community members.

Smithsonian holds collections that it wouldn’t have been able to obtain under modern standards.

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The statement comes a year after a group of curators and collection specialists began contemplating whether the Smithsonian network of museums should come up with a “Sharing stewardship” policy that would allow the temporary return of looted, stolen, or otherwise unethically-obtained collections. The policy will concentrate on repatriating and agreeing to shared stewardship on human remains, particularly those obtained without the consent or the family members of the deceased, according to policy notes. 

The “Policy on ethical returns” took effect on April 29 and will apply to all Smithsonian museums, though given the wide range of artifacts on display at the various sites, it will be implemented differently from location to location.

Individual museums will decide on criteria and procedures for “deaccessioning and returning collections for ethical reasons, with occasional interventions by the parent organization’s Board of Regents when the collections in question are of “If the deaccession creates significant public interest, it might have significant research, monetary or historical value..”

The principles as outlined in the museum’s news release state that “past acquisitions raising ethical concerns should be investigated and addressed in a manner consistent with current ethical standards,” meaning “being proactive” is preferable to being “Just be responsive” – i.e. responding to scandals – in addressing issues related to past collecting.

The museum also acknowledged that it has collected “In a way that causes harm to others or benefits from unequal power relations,” admitting that while it was impossible to deny the role of predatory practices in the accumulation of the museums’ impressive hoards, “You must never allow them to be part of our future interactions or collecting.

Despite its rapacious past, the museum has vowed to go forward with a “Engagement to adopt policies that are transparent in responding to all requests for returned or shared stewardship.

Even before releasing its policy on “ethical returns,” the Smithsonian pledged in March to repatriate 39 bronze sculptures to Nigeria, which has been demanding the return of the “Benin Bronzes” for decades. The museum erected a display of photographs in their place and a sign declaring that the organization recognized “Victims of these crimes can suffer trauma, violence, or loss through the theft of artistic and cultural heritage.

Many of the sculptures were ransacked from Benin City in 1897 by the British, who – according to the Smithsonian’s website – “All royal treasures were confiscated. Some of them were given to officers, but the majority went to London auctions to cover the costs of the expedition. The items were eventually returned to private and museum collections worldwide.

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Many of the precolonial art found in museums in the west are a result of these morally questionable distribution methods. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has repatriated some of its works from the Benin Bronzes Collection last year. Another Nepalese sculpture from the tenth century was returned to the museum by the Kathmandu Valley Temple.

The Smithsonian Institution describes itself as “the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex.”

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