Over the last 10 years, many activists and art organizations have urged big museums and collectors to return looted artworks to their countries of origin. These calls have grown so loud that Western institutions could not keep ignoring them anymore.
In Europe, namely Belgium, France, and Germany, museums began sending thousands of stolen art and objects back to their countries of origin in Africa. Many British museums and galleries are still catching up, but the debate is heating up there as well, with campaigns like BP or Not BP? Behind the closing of galleries to highlight and shed light on artifacts that were obtained through colonialism.
However, the most recent progress comes from the United States. The Smithsonian Institution, the world’s biggest set of museums and research centers, announced a major shift in its policy on retrieving and returning plundered artworks from its collections last month. The new “ethical returns” policy, which went into effect on Friday, April 29, is intended to reflect changing attitudes on the repatriation of works and artifacts that were stolen from their place of origin or obtained unethically by Western museums and art institutions.
The Smithsonian Institution is a diverse organization with 21 museums, a zoo, and dozens of libraries and research centers. Its new policy gives museums more power, which allows them to give back collections to their original owners. However, according to an official statement, the Smithsonian board will have to approve the return of certain objects of a significant monetary or historical value.
This is happening just now, after many years and struggles from activists calling for museums to return the looted artifacts, because issues of ownership ,especially when it comes to art, take years to be worked out.
It is not a given that this decision will launch a chain reaction of other cultural institutions returning stolen art. However, it is a big step, seeing as the Smithsonian is a gigantic art institution that generally sets the tone for the rest of the art world. And even though the Smithsonian does not comment or interfere with other museum’s positions, it does appear to indicate a shift in how we recognize the provenance of art while recognizing that activists’ pressure should not be ignored.
In other related reading, this is how the pandemic has highlighted a social crisis in museums.
Photo via Franko Khoury/National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution