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In April 2022, the Smithsonian adopted an Institution-wide Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns policy allowing shared stewardship arrangements and the return of collections in appropriate circumstances based on ethical considerations. In 2023, the Smithsonian will continue to promote respectful engagement with descendants and descendant communities and will develop an Institution-wide policy for the appropriate care, shared stewardship or ethical return of human remains.
Since its founding in 1846, the Smithsonian has developed one of the largest scientific collections in the world of human remains. Most of the remains are in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History and were acquired during the 19th and early 20th centuries. These collections have informed scientific research in the past and continue to do so today.
Since the passage of the National Museum of the American Indian Act in 1989, the Smithsonian has offered the return, or repatriation, of the remains of more than 7,000 Indigenous people, of which over 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 Indigenous remains.
The Smithsonian’s goal is to evaluate all human remains in its care to determine which of those remains should be subject to ethical return or shared stewardship. The Smithsonian acknowledges that some of the practices of its past are no longer acceptable today. The Smithsonian has placed temporary restrictions on research on human remains in its care and the acquisition of any additional remains while it forms its human remains policy. The policy will guide the Institution as it assesses the human remains in its collections, including examining the circumstances under which they were acquired. In developing the policy, the Smithsonian will also examine and clarify the ethical reasons for holding human remains in its permanent collections.
“As a global institution, it is our responsibility to grapple with these challenging and complex issues in an inclusive, transparent and respectful manner,” said Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie G. Bunch III. “By taking this deep introspective look back at our history and past practices, we will ensure our continued commitment to ethical returns.”
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