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. The Smithsonian has collections that it would not have acquired under present-day standards. Although the Smithsonian has legal title or custody of its collections, continued retention or sole stewardship may cause harm to descendants or communities and be fundamentally inconsistent with the Smithsonian’s ethical standards and values. In these circumstances, shared stewardship or ethical return may be appropriate.
The Smithsonian recognizes the value of community representation in its collections. Preserving and making available to the public—with honor and respect—a diverse range of collections, stories, and histories is essential to carrying out the Smithsonian’s role as collaborative custodian of cultural and historical legacies. Therefore, the Smithsonian is committed to working transparently and in consultation with individuals, descendent communities, and other stakeholders to consider matters of shared stewardship and the potential return of collections based on ethical considerations.
“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
Shared Stewardship of Collections
The Smithsonian Libraries and Archives (SLA) recognizes the value of representation in Smithsonian collections, the benefit of preserving and making available to the public, with honor and respect, a diverse range of collections, stories, and histories, and the role of libraries and archives as collaborative custodians of cultural and historical legacies. SLA’s Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns policy reflects the fact that ethical norms and best practices, especially as they relate to collecting material for libraries and archives, have evolved over time. The policy is rooted in transparency, respectful engagement, meaningful consultation, and collaboration.
SLA welcomes requests and inquiries that augment or clarify ownership history of collection materials, including requests that seek shared stewardship or ethical return of collection materials, through its website, where visitors are directed to send information or questions to https://librariesarchives.si.edu/contact-us. Requests and inquiries sent to this resource account that seek shared stewardship or ethical return of SLA collection materials are forwarded to SLA’s Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns Team (“Team”). It is the Team’s responsibility to manage the research, documentation, and decision-making process, as well as ensure a prompt response to requests and inquiries.
SLA established its Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns policy in accordance with the Smithsonian’s Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns Policy and consistent with the Statement of Values and Principles, and the Secretary’s strategic priorities, “Our Shared Future” and “Trusted Source.”