View of Castle through trees

Reckoning with Human Remains in the Smithsonian Collection

Since its founding in 1846, the Smithsonian has acquired collections of human remains for scientific research, most during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The remains have facilitated scientific research, increasing knowledge about human variation, and helping advance 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 incompatible with modern standards. We acknowledge that some of the practices of our past are no longer acceptable today. We have a duty to the people whose remains we care for and their descendants to honor and respect them in accordance with 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, respectful research, and ethical return of human remains. 


Human Remains Task Force Report
Released February 21, 2024, Smithsonian Institution

What Comes Next for the Smithsonian’s New Human Remains Task Force
November 30, 2023, Smithsonian magazine

National Museum of Natural History Announces Dorothy Lippert as Repatriation Program Manager
November 9, 2023, Smithsonian Newsdesk

This Is How the Smithsonian Will Reckon with Our Dark Inheritance
August 20, 2023, Opinion | The Washington Post

Smithsonian Forms Task Force to Develop Guidelines for Human Remains Collection 
April 17, 2023, Smithsonian Newsdesk

Statement on Human Remains at the Smithsonian Institution 
January 25, 2023, Smithsonian Newsdesk

Frequently Asked Questions

How many human remains does the Smithsonian have in its collection?

The Smithsonian has more than 30,000 human remains in its collections. Roughly half of these remains are of Native American individuals.

Can the Smithsonian identify the remains? Does the Institution know where they all came from?

Depending on how they were acquired, we have varying levels of information about each individual in our collection. Some individuals are associated with specific information, such as their name and life history. Some of the Native American individuals have their tribal names associated with them. For other individuals we have vague, incomplete, or no information. 

We continue to conduct research on the provenance (history) of individual human remains.

What is the Smithsonian’s process for formulating its Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns Policy for Human Remains?

The Smithsonian Institution formed a Human Remains Task Force composed of experts from the Smithsonian and from outside the Smithsonian that made recommendations on the development of an Institution-wide policy for the appropriate care, research use, shared stewardship, or ethical return of human remains. The Task Force report was submitted to the Smithsonian Secretary in January 2024. These recommendations will help inform the Smithsonian Policy on Human Remains which will be developed and implemented by the end of this year.

How has the Smithsonian addressed the human remains in the collection in the past?

The Smithsonian has been working to return the remains of Native American ancestors since 1984. Since the passage of the National Museum of the American Indian Act in 1989, the Smithsonian has offered the return of the remains of approximately 7,000 Native American people, of which about 5,000 have been repatriated. In 2015, the National Museum of Natural History established and began to implement an international repatriation policy, and, in 2020, it established a policy for the return of culturally unaffiliated Native American human remains.

In 2021, the Secretary established several working groups, representing many Smithsonian units, to look at best collections and research practices. As a result of the groups’ recommendations, the Smithsonian adopted an Institution-wide Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns policy in spring 2022, allowing shared stewardship arrangements and the return of collections in appropriate circumstances based on ethical considerations. This ethical returns policy did not address human remains.

Where does the Smithsonian keep human remains? 

Most of the human remains in the Smithsonian’s collection are cared for by the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland. 

How does the Smithsonian preserve and care for the human remains in its collections? 

Stewardship of Smithsonian collections (artifacts and art works) is guided by the SD 600 Smithsonian Collection Management Policy. We follow cultural protocols for Indigenous remains developed over time in consultation with communities.

Are any human remains on display?

Yes. The National Museum of Natural History has a small number of individuals currently on display. This includes two mummies in the Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt exhibition and two individuals for whom informed consent has been obtained. A skeleton in the Osteology Hall has been taken off view and will be replaced with a cast.

What is the Smithsonian’s current repatriation policy?

The National Museum of the American Indian Act (Public Law 101–185), as amended by the NMAI Act Amendment of 1996 (Public Law 104–278), requires the Smithsonian to return, upon request, Native American ancestral remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony to culturally affiliated federally recognized Indian tribes.

The National Museum of the American Indian adopted a Repatriation Policy that guides the Repatriation Department's efforts to address domestic and international repatriation cases. You can read more about this repatriation policy. 

The National Museum of Natural History Repatriation Office has developed detailed policy and procedures for the implementation of the NMAI Act.

What does one do if they think they have an ancestor in the Smithsonian collection?

An American Indian tribe, Alaska Native corporation, or Native Hawaiian organization may initiate a request for the repatriation of ancestral remains and/or associated funerary objects from the National Museum of Natural History by making a written request for their return. The NMNH will also address requests for repatriation from lineal descendants who are Native American, Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian. Please see the NMNH policy on culturally unaffiliated human remains and associated funerary objects.  

Non-Native American individuals who believe that a member of their family may be represented in the Smithsonian collections may send an inquiry to

For information regarding the repatriation process at the National Museum of the American Indian, please refer to A Step-by-Step Guide through the Repatriation Process and the FAQ page.

Can scientists continue their ongoing research projects that involve the use and study of human remains? 

The Smithsonian has temporarily restricted access to human remains. But new projects may be considered, and ongoing research projects may continue, if the researcher receives approval from the unit Director, the Under Secretary of Museums and Culture, and the Under Secretary for Science and Research.

What does shared stewardship mean? 

In this case, it is a partnership or collaboration between the Smithsonian and another group, organization, tribe, or community of individuals. For example, at the National Museum of the American Indian shared stewardship is an integral part of the museum’s collections care practice. The museum’s staff engages with community members to get their perspectives on standards of care, access, research, and conservation.  

What is an ethical return? 

An ethical return is the act of giving back to a more rightful owner based on ethical considerations when not required by law. In making an ethical return, technical legal defenses such as statutes of limitations or laches that may be available are not asserted as a means to retain ownership or possession. Ethical returns are not required by law; they are returns made following the decision and approval by Smithsonian officials. 

How is an ethical return different from repatriation? 

Repatriation follows specific laws. At the Smithsonian, the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989, and elsewhere, the National Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA), call for Native American human remains and cultural items in specific categories to be returned to the tribe, lineal descendants, or community of origin. The National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of Natural History have been repatriating Native American human remains and artifacts to tribes and communities prior to the passage of NAGPRA. 

Who decides what is “unethical” by the Smithsonian’s standards? 

It is the Smithsonian’s decision on what to do with items that are lawfully in our possession but could be eligible for a return to the community of origin. Decisions about ethics would be fully discussed with a variety of stakeholders, including interested communities, curators, researchers, professional experts, and Smithsonian leadership. The Human Remains Task Force has issued recommendations on the ethical acquisition, care, use, and return of human remains to their communities of origin. 


National Museum of Natural History 

National Museum of the American Indian