“My goal was very simple: Smithsonian will be the place people point to, to say ‘This is how we should share our collections and think about ethical returns,’” Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture told the Times.
As recent conversations around racial equity and reparations for colonialism have increased, the Smithsonian Institution is setting a clear goal, Bunch said. “The Smithsonian is this amazing wonder — this gift not just to the country, but to the world. It’s really important that we provide leadership.”
As the report notes, museums once argued about who had the authority to return items, but cultural centers and global political movements are moving toward restitution and reparation.
The Smithsonian — which includes 21 museums and the National Zoo — will acknowledge that the best practices of global art collecting have changed. The museum system is preparing to return the 39 Benin Bronzes stolen from Nigeria in an 1897 raid.
Dan Hicks, an archaeology professor at the University of Oxford and author of The British Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, told Smithsonian Magazine in March that he “can’t underline how significant it is that arguably the leading United States museum for anthropology and for world culture has made this bold but also thoughtful and ethically driven move.” He says it offers “a beacon of hope and light” for communities throughout Africa, “who for decades have been demanding these returns.”