Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns

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

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (“HMSG”) takes a proactive and collaborative approach to ethical collections management for existing and future collections which involves sharing authority, expertise and responsibility for the attribution, documentation, interpretation, care, display, access, and disposition of collection items in the collection.  While an object may have been legally acquired, continued control by the museum may not be ethical or reflective of the guiding values and principles adopted by the Smithsonian. HMSG is dedicated to fostering a respectful partnership and dialogue with individuals, communities, as well as national and international governments through consultation and thoughtful engagement.  HMSG’s Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns (SSER) policy applies to all items within the scope of its Collections Management Policy as well as collections information, files, digital assets, images, scans, replicas, and other materials associated with objects subject to a shared stewardship arrangement or ethical return.

All requests for ethical returns should be sent to Upon receipt of an ethical returns request a standard acknowledgment will be issued to the requestor within 14 days.

Requests will be formerly reviewed at quarterly meetings.

Processes for reviewing requests for ethical returns or shared stewardship will prioritize transparency, respectful engagement, meaningful consultation and timely resolutions.

Review of requests shall include consultation with the requestor and other relevant parties, provenance research, a review of the manner and context of acquisition over time along with any other relevant matters.

A final decision will generally be made within one year of the initial request, understanding that it may take significantly longer to gather appropriate documentation in some cases.

If the request is denied, HMSG will communicate the decision to the requestor with an explanation of the research findings and justification for the decision.