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Smithsonian African-American History Museum

Source: Tonya Jameson / Tonya Jameson

It is not a secret that art from Black and Brown people has been stolen and taken away from its source.

In museums around the world, the collections of stolen art are donated to installations without the context of how these pieces really go there. Museums have had a hard time agreeing about who had the authority to return stolen items and how these items will brought back to their origins.

The Smithsonian Institution, on the other hand, is somewhat ready to face the facts and attempt to make amends.

This major national museum organization just announced its process to start returning items from their collections that were looted or acquired unethically. The Smithsonian owns 21 museums and the National Zoo. The amount of items within all of the places could bring a plethora of problems in search for what’s stolen or not. Lonny G. Bunch III is secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and one of the people that spearheaded the new policy.

Lonny G. Bunch spoke with The New York Times to explain the duty towards reparations for stolen cultures.

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.’

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.

The notion is to say, when we’re doing exhibitions, when we’re bringing in new collections, let us look at it through an ethical lens, or of course, if we hear from nations or communities about things, that will also trigger the kinds of research that will really allow us to make decisions about where is the best place for those collections.


The first destination that will receive the Smithsonian’s stolen goods is Benin City, Nigeria.

In 1897, British soldiers invaded the centuries-old Kingdom of Benin and pillaged Edo. Which used to be the center of that African empire. The British stole about 10,000 sculptures, plaques, ceremonial objects, altars and other pieces dating largely from the mid-16th to early 17th century. That collection was formally called the “Benin Bronzes,”. For most of last 125 years this collection of items have been place all over the world, and without the awareness that the items were taken by force.

Unfortunately, the Smithsonian’s new policy will not require them to do a full inventory scan to determine what needs to be returned. With more than 150 million objects in their collection, the hope of priceless cultural objects being returned may not come to fruition.

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