Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns
Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns at the Smithsonian
In April 2022, the Smithsonian adopted a Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns Policy. The policy acknowledges that ethical norms and professional best practices in collecting have changed. The Smithsonian has collections that it would not have acquired under present-day standards. Although the Smithsonian has legal title or custody of its collections, continued retention or sole stewardship may cause harm to descendants or communities and be fundamentally inconsistent with the Smithsonian’s ethical standards and values. In these circumstances, shared stewardship or ethical return may be appropriate.
The Smithsonian recognizes the value of community representation in its collections. Preserving and making available to the public—with honor and respect—a diverse range of collections, stories, and histories is essential to carrying out the Smithsonian’s role as a collaborative custodian of cultural and historical legacies. Therefore, the Smithsonian is committed to working transparently and in consultation with individuals, descendent communities, and other stakeholders to consider matters of shared stewardship and the potential return of collections based on ethical considerations.
"This new policy is a cultural shift in our concepts of possession, ownership, and stewardship of collections. Its adoption is an expression of our values and commitment to meet our ethical obligations as a national and international cultural institution."
—Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III
Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns at the NMAI
When the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) assumed title and control of the collections of the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation (MAI), it simultaneously inherited collections whose acquisition—by the MAI, its agents, or others—should rightly be scrutinized based on present-day ethical and professional standards. The NMAI recognizes that continued retention or sole stewardship of such collections may cause harm to communities and be fundamentally inconsistent with the Smithsonian’s ethical standards and institutional values.
In such cases, the NMAI will work with communities or individuals to determine the most appropriate path forward, be it forging shared stewardship agreements, establishing a basis for ethical return, or following the legal path of repatriation. Implementing the Smithsonian’s Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns policy for the NMAI is rooted in accountability and responsibility to our Native and Indigenous constituency. It is not enough for the NMAI to simply steward items. Instead, the act of returning those items or forging shared stewardship agreements may make far greater contributions to the health and well-being of Native and Indigenous people and their communities.
Requests or opportunities for shared stewardship or ethical return may entail multiple steps, including evaluation of a requestor’s role/relationship to the requested item(s); the identification of other parties with equal or identical relations to or interests in the item(s); and whether the request presents a case for return or shared stewardship based on ethical or other considerations.
To submit a shared stewardship or ethical return inquiry or request, complete this form.
If you have questions, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.