The Smithsonian has formed a task force to develop a policy that addresses the future of human remains held within its museums’ collections. This task force will promote respectful engagement with descendants and descendant communities and develop a Smithsonian-wide policy for the appropriate handling of human remains.
In 2022, the Smithsonian enacted a Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns policy allowing shared stewardship arrangements for collections or the return of collections based on ethical considerations. At the same time, the Institution recognized that additional policies were needed for the human remains in its care. Accordingly, this new task force will develop guidelines on the ethical acquisition, care, use and disposition of human remains.
This task force will advance the Smithsonian’s ongoing work to address its collection of human remains. Since the National Museum of the American Indian Act in 1989, the Smithsonian has successfully repatriated over 5,000 individuals. The National Museum of Natural History implemented an international repatriation policy in 2015, and in 2020, a policy for the return of culturally unaffiliated Indigenous remains. The new task force will develop a policy that addresses all human remains held by the Smithsonian.
“At the Smithsonian, we recognize certain collection practices of our past were unethical,” said Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch III. “What was once standard in the museum field is no longer acceptable. We acknowledge and apologize for the pain our historical practices have caused people, their families and their communities, and I look forward to the conversations this initiative will generate in helping us perform our cutting-edge research in a manner that is ripe with scholarship and conforms to the highest ethical standard.”
The task force is co-chaired by Ellen Stofan, Under Secretary for Science and Research, and Kevin Gover, Under Secretary for Museums and Culture, and includes Smithsonian employees and outside experts, including anthropologists and leaders in related fields. The Smithsonian will share the task force members’ names in the coming weeks.
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