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 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
To submit a request, please complete the Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns Request Form and send it to CHDirectorsOffice@si.edu.
For more information on Cooper Hewitt’s Collections Management Policy for Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns please click here.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns policy?
The Smithsonian’s Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns Policy, (adopted April 29, 2022) authorizes Smithsonian units to share stewardship of, or return, collection objects in appropriate circumstances based on ethical considerations. Unethical circumstances may include the manner in which a collection object was acquired, for example, if under duress or without consent. The policy will allow collections that were acquired unethically to be returned or be subject to a shared stewardship agreement.
What is the process/timeline for submitting a request?
To submit a request, please use the Ethical Returns and Shared Stewardship form here. After a request has been submitted, the requestor will receive an acknowledgement of receipt of the request within 10 business days from the Director’s office. All requests will be reviewed by Cooper Hewitt’s Ethical Returns-Shared Stewardship Committee. The Committee will appoint a task force to conduct an initial research inquiry, generally within sixty days. Requestors will be notified about the next steps after this first phase is complete and will receive appropriate updates on the status of their request. Please note that the timeframe for the evaluation and research of an object or group of objects may vary greatly on a case-by-case basis.
Who is eligible to submit a request form?
Any individual or entity representing a community, government organization, tribal nation, family member, or themselves that believes they have a claim to or information regarding an object that may be a candidate for ethical return or shared stewardship is eligible to submit a form.
What information is required to submit a request form?
To submit a form, the following information is required: basic contact information, on whose behalf the claim is being submitted, identifying information on the object(s) (this includes title, date, maker(s) and accession number(s)), and any documentation that may aid in the investigation of or provide additional context for the claim. To submit a claim, please use the Ethical Returns and Shared Stewardship form here.
How is the Ethical Returns and Shared Stewardship policy different from the NMAI Act?
The National Museum of the American Indian Act (NMAI Act) (1989) provides processes for repatriating, among other things, certain categories of Native American cultural objects (such as sacred objects or human remains) taken from federal or tribal lands within the United States. The Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns policy covers any objects of tangible cultural heritage in Smithsonian collections, whether acquired from a domestic or international source.