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Cultural Property in the Museum Environment

There is a vast array of cultural heritage items that are considered cultural property. They range from architecture, monuments, or cultural landscapes to singular artifacts that are significant to understanding past generations and preserving knowledge for the future.

The illicit removal of significant objects from their place of origin has become an epidemic in recent years, rivaling drug trafficking as an illegal economic force. This illicit international market has contributed to the despoliation of museums and monuments and has caused an irreparable loss of archaeological remains.

At the same time, efforts to stop the loss of cultural treasures are building throughout the world. Nations are increasingly adopting regulations, laws, and professional codes of ethics to reinforce that cultural property should not be removed, sold, or traded without permission from official representatives of the country of origin.

Museums also must maintain high legal and ethical standards for handling cultural property. The Smithsonian Institution has adopted its own set of strict rules and regulations to guard against the acquisition or exhibition of any object that was not ethically acquired, scientifically excavated, or removed legally from its country of origin. The Smithsonian Institution Policy on Museum Acquisitions supports local, state, national, and international laws to protect art, antiquities, national treasures, ethnographic material, and all cultural property from illicit trafficking or destructive exploitation. In developing such rules, museums take an active part in strengthening the laws that protect cultural property worldwide.

Visit the following websites for more information.


Advisory Council on Historic Conversation: The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended in 2006

American Alliance of Museums:
Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects during the Nazi Era
Standards Regarding Archaeological Material and Ancient Art

Association of Art Museum Directors:
Report on Acquisition of Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art
Task Force Report on the Spoliation of Art during the Nazi/World War II Era

International Council of Museums: Red List of Cultural Objects at Risk
National Park Service: American Antiquities Act, 1906 (16 USC 431-433)
UNESCO Convention of 1970
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement: Fact Sheet: Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations


Advisory Council on Historic Conservation
American Alliance of Museums
Association of Art Museum Directors
International Council of Museums
UNESCO World Heritage Portal
U.S. Department of State, Cultural Heritage Center

The Freer is closed for renovation and reopening in 2017. The Sackler remains open, with a full lineup of exhibitions and events both in the museum and around DC.