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

NMAL’s Philosophy

The National Museum of the American Latino (NMAL) values transparent and respectful collecting practices that integrate the knowledge, practices, and wishes of communities. NMAL strives to integrate ethical considerations into all acquisition processes. Provenance information, ethical considerations, and potential conflicts of any kind shall be part of acquisition consideration.

NMAL may decide to enter into a shared stewardship arrangement as part of the acquisition process. Due to the Museum’s desire to cultivate collaboration and partnerships in communities and other museums and institutions, shared stewardship is a vital tool for NMAL to build and foster relationships and support communities. Objects that fall under the Museum’s scope of collections are not only important to the country and the world, but also to communities and families. This is an important factor for the Museum to consider when proposing a potential acquisition into the collection.

NMAL may additionally enter into shared stewardship arrangements with communities represented in the Museum’s collections in appropriate circumstances, based on ethical considerations. To learn more, our full Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns Policy is available here.

Download Document with NMAL's Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns Policy



Inquiry Process

Requests for ethical returns can be generated by an external party, or someone on the Museum’s staff can identify potential returns and initiate the process. To submit an inquiry, please email and include the following information:

  • Name
  • Email
  • Phone Number
  • Are you representing a larger group, community, or institution?
    • If yes, what is the name of the larger group, community, or institution?
  • Object(s) you are inquiring about (include Accession Number(s) if known)
  • Why this object(s) should have a Shared Stewardship Agreement or an Ethical Return
  • How did you learn about this object being in NMAL’s collection?
  • Any additional comments or questions

The Registrar will provide an initial response to a request or inquiry within thirty (30) days of the request submission, confirming receipt of the request and explaining the next steps. The request then goes to the Exhibitions Director, who will review the request, do further research if necessary, and consult with the requesting party. The Exhibitions Director may also consult other NMAL or Smithsonian staff to assist in the research, consultation, and decision-making processes.


Evaluation Criteria

NMAL will evaluate two main questions when considering requests for shared stewardship or ethical returns:

  • Is the requester the appropriate party to make the request based on the nature of the requester’s relationship to the collection or collection item (descendant, governmental, cultural group, or tribal authority, etc.)?
  • Does the request or opportunity present an appropriate case for return or shared stewardship based on ethical considerations?

When seeking to answer the first question to determine if the requester is the appropriate party to make the request based on the nature of the requester’s relationship to the collection or collection item, NMAL will consider the following:

  • The nature of the requester’s relationship to the collection item;
  • Whether or not the requester has authority on behalf of the party seeking shared stewardship or return (e.g., the family, community, cultural group, tribe or government);
  • If there are existing competing inquiries or requests; and
  • If there are other parties with potential interests in the collection object(s).

When considering the second question to determine if the request or opportunity presents an appropriate case for return or shared stewardship based on ethical considerations, NMAL will use the following criteria:

  • The circumstances of the original acquisition;
  • the circumstances of the Smithsonian’s acquisition;
  • if there is any evidence that the collection item was legally acquired but was acquired forcibly, under duress, through coercion, without consent, or involuntarily;
  • if retaining the item would perpetuate harm or be inconsistent with the core values of the Smithsonian and NMAL; and
  • if returning the item to the requester/inquirer would redress the harm or unethical circumstances of acquisition.

The following criteria will not be taken into account when evaluating the circumstances of a potential ethical return:

  • Monetary value; and
  • The requester’s ability to meet Smithsonian standards of care.