Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns
"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
Confronting Past Practices
Museums around the world are reckoning with the methods and means by which they have acquired some of their collections and how these practices have impacted communities of origin worldwide. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is no exception.
The Smithsonian has the responsibility to respectfully engage, consult, and work collaboratively with descendants and communities represented in our collections by providing standards and a process for shared stewardship and ethical return of our collections. The Smithsonian is committed to working with descendants, communities, and relevant governmental and regional stakeholders to address these matters.
Our museum has been playing an important role in this space for years, particularly as it relates to meeting our obligations under the National Museum of the American Indian Act to repatriate human remains and funerary objects – many of which had been part of our collections for more than a century. But there is more work to be done.
Ethical Returns and Shared Stewardship
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. It allows Smithsonian museums to return collections, in appropriate circumstances, based on ethical considerations including the manner in which a collection was originally acquired and the context of its acquisition.
As part of this Smithsonian-wide effort, our museum was tasked with developing our own National Museum of Natural History Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns policy specific to the unique collections we steward.
We invite any requests for possible ethical returns or questions about the policy to be submitted via email to NMNHEthicalStewards@si.edu.
Since its founding in 1846, the Smithsonian has developed one of the largest scientific collections of human remains in the world. Most of the 30,000 individuals are held by our museum and were acquired during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their remains have facilitated scientific research by aiding in our understanding of human evolution and the advancement of forensic science and modern medical practices.
The human remains held by the Smithsonian come from many sources, including archaeological excavation, transfers from government agencies, and donations from museums, universities, hospitals, and individuals.
Many of the remains in Smithsonian collections were acquired without informed consent and in ways that are not consistent with modern standards. We acknowledge that some of the practices of our past are no longer acceptable today. We have a duty to these people and their descendants to champion the changes that reflect our current values and priorities.
We believe that all human remains must be treated with dignity and respect. We are committed to the appropriate care, shared stewardship, research use, or ethical return of human remains.
Since the passage of the National Museum of the American Indian Act in 1989, the National Museum of Natural History has offered the return, or repatriation, of the remains of nearly 7,000 Indigenous people, of which over 4,600 have been repatriated. At our museum, these efforts are led by our Repatriation Office.
In 2015, our museum established and began to implement an international repatriation policy, and in 2020, we established a policy for the return of culturally unaffiliated Indigenous remains of individuals from what is now the United States.
The Smithsonian is currently developing an Institution-wide policy for the appropriate care, shared stewardship or ethical return of all of the human remains housed here. A Task Force of internal and external stakeholders has recently been created to form the policy which is expected to be completed in 2023.
In the meantime, the Smithsonian has placed temporary restrictions on research on all human remains in its care and the acquisition of any additional remains while the policy is developed.
For Researchers: All requests for research access on these collections must be submitted via this form. Submission of the form is not a guarantee that access will be granted.