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.

Lonnie G. Bunch III
Smithsonian Secretary


As a member of the Smithsonian family, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is committed to acquiring its artifacts in ways that meet the highest ethical standards and the most stringent legal requirements. Since the beginning of its collecting endeavors, NMAAHC has worked to establish and nurture respectful relationships with the communities, families, and stakeholders it represents with its collections.  

 As a matter of policy, we apply internal and independent scholarship to identify, collect, and interpret the items entrusted to the Museum’s care.  We also engage in open and equitable knowledge-sharing to ensure respect for diverse narratives and to elevate the perspectives of originating communities, descendant communities, and local communities. 

In the event that any stakeholder feels their materials have been acquired or handled unethically, NMAAHC will ensure an accessible pathway to address and explore inquiries and concerns. You may submit your inquiry by answering a short questionnaire using the link below. 


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