Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III met on Thursday with the U.S. Senate Rules Committee for this first time since his appointment in May 2019. During the hearing, he acknowledged the work of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage as a model for the rest of the Smithsonian.
Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico questioned Bunch about the Smithsonian’s commitment to creating a National Museum of the American Latino, advancements in the American Women’s History Initiative, and how the institution supports Native tribes in protecting their cultural expressions—especially recordings of religious and ceremonial events.
“Many museums and universities, including the Smithsonian, currently hold these recordings in their collections,” said Udall, who serves as vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. “Under current law, it’s possible those culturally sensitive recordings could be released to the public domain, which is a major concern for tribes across the country.”
Bunch confirmed that the Smithsonian will work with the Library of Congress but has already developed its own solution.
“One of the things we’ve done at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is created what we call a Shared Stewardship Collections Policy, which allows us to look at the Native holdings that we have to make sure that Native communities shape our collections policies, shape our access. We actually communicate and consult with those communities to make sure that we’re not letting sacred music or issues that shouldn’t be in the broad public [into our collections]. So we’re doing the best we can to ensure that we are honoring the intangible heritage of the Native communities.
“I think that this is one of the most important things we’re doing, because we will now take that Shared Stewardship notion, and I’m going to ask the rest of the Smithsonian to look at it so that we have a policy that shapes the entire Smithsonian.”
The Center developed the Shared Stewardship policy after extensive consultation with an international pool of Native and non-Native cultural heritage professionals. The policy, now available online, was officially adopted in July 2019.
Elisa Hough is the editor of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.