Last month, the Smithsonian deaccessioned 29 exquisite bronze sculptures from the Kingdom of Benin that were looted by the British military in 1897. The attack remains one of the most painful in the long history of colonialism and the return of the priceless objects has become a symbol of the global effort to push museums to face their ugly pasts.
Bunch was referring to a new collections policy that requires Smithsonian museums to collaborate with the communities represented by their holdings and to return or share ownership of items that might have been previously stolen or acquired under duress. It directs them to make their collections publicly accessible and to fully vet future acquisitions to prevent items with questionable provenance from entering the collection. It also focuses on the treatment of human remains, some of which are subject to federal law and represent most of the institution’s past repatriation work. The policy requires human remains “be treated with dignity and respect, as those once living, and not objectified as a scientific resource.”
But the 176-year-old institution’s roots in the 19th century, its 155 million-item collection and its unwieldy structure — siloed and bunkered with multiple leaders free to interpret the policy as they see fit — leave some in the museum world skeptical and pessimistic. Many look to the Smithsonian to forge a new path — one that fulfills the field’s 2020 pledges to increase diversity and root out racist practices — and they worry that the reality will fall short.
One floor above the African exhibit, which opened in 1999, the bones of Robert Kennicott, the famed Smithsonian explorer who once lived in the Castle, are on view. Nearby is an ancient copper plate of a birdman displayed as an example of creativity. The exhibit label notes the plate was from the Etowah mounds in Georgia, but it does not say that Smithsonian scientist John P. Rogan unearthed it in 1883 among “stone sepulchers containing the skeletal remains of several adults and children,” as detailed in the institution’s 2013 book, “The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects.”
And those are just some of the objects on view. The Smithsonian has thousands more items in storage, including medical collections of individuals who may not have consented to the use of their bodies for scientific research, objects dug up by American soldiers or seized by government officials, and more than 12,000 human remains.
“I had to chuckle … that the Smithsonian thinks they’re a leader in this. They are not,” said Tina Marie Osceola, an enrolled member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and director of its Historic Preservation Office, which has been trying for 11 years to get the Natural History Museum to return of the remains of 1,400 ancestors. “They are the best bad example we have in the country.”
The policy reflects the evolution of the museum field. Members of the International Council of Museums have spent three years fiercely debating a definition of museums that would include language reflecting the field’s focus on human rights and knowledge-sharing. The social and racial justice movement that swept the country after the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis have accelerated efforts to address perceived racism and helped to fuel the public pressure to return colonial-era artworks stolen from colonized countries. UNESCO announced in May that Greek and British officials have agreed to formal talks about the Parthenon marbles, perhaps the most high-profile example of issue of ethical returns. The pieces that had been part of the Parthenon in Athens were acquired by British diplomat Lord Elgin and have been in London for more than 200 years. The Greeks have long demanded their return.
Newer units, like the American Indian Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, were founded on these precepts; older ones will have to catch up, said Anthea Hartig, director of the National Museum of American History. “What is new is the entire Smithsonian are now holding themselves to these same standards,” she said.
“We shouldn’t expect uniformity, because what is right in one situation might be different in another,” said Tracy Ireland, professor of cultural heritage at the University of Canberra in Australia and co-editor of the 2015 book, “The Ethics of Cultural Heritage.” “There’s a uniformity of process, but certainly not a uniformity of action.”
The updated policy does not require its museums to systemically review their collections, said Undersecretary for Museums and Culture Kevin Gover. Instead, staff will respond to requests and consider the ethical implications of works they encounter as part of their daily tasks. There have been no requests since policy was announced in April, and Gover predicted it will affect only a small percentage of its holdings.
“You don’t know what you have but you’re going to say already that you don’t have much to give back? That’s weird,” said Erin L. Thompson, author and professor at John Jay College in New York who serves on the advisory committee for the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign. “Not providing a budget means it is not going to happen.”
Even without the requirement, Blankenberg plans to review and publicly share information about the National Museum of African Art’s nearly 12,000-piece collection, one of the Smithsonian’s smallest. Full transparency has to be the foundation of the effort to share authority, she said.
“It’s a topic of growing interest and one of the many things we’re tracking,” Johnson✓ said, noting that Nigeria is still developing the capacity to accept returns. The museum hopes to bring any of its Benin works connected to the British raid to the Board of Regents for deaccessioning at its next meeting in October. “The intention remains the same and the outcome is going to be the same.”
“If you want to run the Smithsonian Institution where different players can do whatever the hell they want, then there’s your policy. But if you truly believe in repatriation, and working with origin and native communities, and building relationships with these communities, you have to be consistent throughout the institution. You can’t allow for that individuality,” said Association of American Indian Affairs chief executive Shannon O’Loughlin, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
“The NMAI’s true intent is to work with the tribes. The NMNH’s is not,” Osceola, the Seminole historic preservation officer, said. “The NMNH has a long history of treating the ancestors as if they belong them, as specimens in a lab and nothing more. They work very hard to make it as difficult as possible for tribes. The NMAI does not do that.”
Since federal law began requiring the return of Native American remains in 1989, the museum has made available for repatriation about 6,600 human remains and is working on the return of 2,000 more (including the Seminole request). There are still another 10,000 in its care that could be claimed, officials said.
Repatriation is time consuming and difficult because some parts of the collection lack complete documentation and because there is only a small staff to handle the many requests, Johnson said. The museum recently completed an international repatriation involving the remains of people indigenous to Australia, an effort not mandated by law, Johnson said.
There are many other areas of concern. American soldiers that were part of General John J. Pershing’s “punitive expedition” in Mexico in 1916 illegally excavated hundreds of items and shipped them to the Washington institution. And there’s the skeleton of Kennicott, who died in 1866 of mysterious causes, which remains on view despite the new policy explicitly stating that human remains not be “objectified as a scientific resource.” Kennicott’s descendants donated his remains, Johnson said.
“We’ll see what Natural History decides to do,” he said. “It’s not a surprise that they are going to have different attitudes. Again, I don’t validate one belief over the other. It’s a great conversation to have.”
“Are the categories sexist, ableist, racist?” National Portrait Gallery Director Kim Sajet asked. “How can we be respectful of communities that have been hurt and continue to be hurt? How do we be inclusive?”
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