World’s largest museum, the Smithsonian Institution is considering returning looted artworks.
In a statement released on Tuesday, the Smithsonian Museum publicly confessed that many of its famed exhibits were acquired unethically — practically plundered. The museum recognized that “many artifacts and works of art have been in the Smithsonian’s holdings for decades or, in some cases, more than 150 years,” noting that “ethical norms and best practices in collecting have changed, particularly with respect to collecting cultural heritage from individuals and communities.”
The announcement arrives a year after a committee of curators and collection experts started debating if the Smithsonian network of museums should implement a “shared stewardship” approach that would enable the temporary repatriation of looted, stolen, or otherwise immorally acquired objects.
According to the policy, the policy will place a strong emphasis on repatriating or settling on shared stewardship of human remains, notably those obtained without the agreement of the individual in concern or their family.
The “ethical returns policy” went into force on April 29 and will extend to all Smithsonian institutions, albeit it will be applied differently at each location due to the huge variety of artifacts on show.
Individual museums will set their own criteria and processes for “deaccessioning and returning collections for ethical reasons,” with the parent group’s Board of Regents intervening only when the archives in question have “significant monetary value, research or historical value, or when the deaccession might create significant public interest.”
“Past acquisitions raising ethical concerns should be investigated and addressed in a manner consistent with current ethical standards,” according to the museum’s principles highlighted in the press release, implying that “being proactive” is desirable to being “simply responsive” – i.e. reacting to controversies – when it comes to tackling concerns regarding past collecting.
The museum also admitted to collecting “in a manner that has caused harm or benefited from unequal power relationships,” confessing that although it was impracticable to deny the position of exploitative practices in the museum’s remarkable hoards, “they must have no part in our future interactions and collecting.”
Despite its predatory history, the museum has pledged to move forward with a “commitment to implement policies that respond in a transparent and timely manner to requests for return or shared stewardship.”
Even before issuing its guideline on “ethical returns,” the Smithsonian announced in March that it will return 39 bronze statues to Nigeria, who had been demanding the restitution of the “Benin Bronzes” for decades.
In their stead, the museum built a photo exhibit and a banner proclaiming that the organization understood “the trauma, violence and loss such displays of stolen artistic and cultural heritage can inflict on the victims of those crimes, their descendants, and broader communities.”
Several of the sculptures were looted from Benin City in 1897 by the British, who “confiscated all the royal treasures, giving some to individual officers but taking most to auction in London to pay for the cost of the expedition,” according to the Smithsonian website. “The looted objects eventually made their way into museum and private collections around the world.”
Such morally dubious distribution ways are to blame for much of the pre-colonial art that has ended up in western institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which last year repatriated its own items from the Benin Bronzes collection. A tenth-century Nepalese sculpture plundered from a shrine in Kathmandu Valley was also returned by the museum.
The Smithsonian Institution prides itself on being “the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex.”