Smithsonian Continues Repatriation of Looted Museum Goods

Smithsonian sets precedence in sending back stolen artefacts.


The clamour to return objects acquired largely through colonialism is one that cannot be ignored. Throughout Europe and Britain, Museums and other institutional galleries have began sending back large portions of their own collections to their countries of origin. 

The Smithsonian, the world’s largest collection of 21 museums and education and research centers, is following suit. Having returned the infamous Benin Bronzes to a traditional Nigerian palace in February, the Smithsonian is continuing to return additional pillaged goods once stolen by colonisers and explorers. The pieces were replaced with signs acknowledging the harm caused by past violence and theft; “We recognize 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.”

As of the 29th April 2022, all Smithsonian museums pledged to take part in a new ‘ethical returns policy’ which allows each site to tailor repatriation according to their own criterion.

Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch highlighted the high level of care required in approaching each artefact and its positioning within the Western public eye; “There is a growing understanding at the Smithsonian and in the world of museums generally that our possession of these collections carries with it certain ethical obligations to the places and people where the collections originated. Among these obligations is to consider, using our contemporary moral norms, what should be in our collections and what should not. This new policy on ethical returns is an expression of our commitment to meet these obligations.”

The introduction of this ethical policy is just one step in the direction of restitution and repatriation, as wider heritage organisations intensify the degree to which they assess the objects in their collection, their origins, how they were accumulated, and where they truly belong.

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