Sound Returns: Toward Ethical "Best Practices" at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Sita Reddy, D.A. Sonneborn


Intangible cultural heritage archives face a dilemma when it comes to repatriation. Claims and counterclaims from source communities must be balanced within legal frames and ethical obligations of museums to give back, restitute, or redress past perceived injustices, while maintaining the essential preservation functions of a heritage archive. This paper examines this dilemma through the illustrative case study of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, a unique collection that is at once an archival collection of traditional music and recorded sound from all over the world, and a nonprofit record label housed in the U.S. national museum since 1987.With a duty to keep its catalogue available in perpetuity, a mandate to pay its own way, and a mission of cultural documentation, collaborative curation, and broad appeal to global audiences, Smithsonian Folkways practices digital repatriation (of audio recordings) and circulation of indigenous knowledge (through publication, payment of royalties and license fees). The paper describes four cases of returns from Folkways’ evolving repatriation practice, offering useful ways of thinking about museum obligations with intangible heritage returns, and several ways of redistributing individual artists’ rights and their communities’ rights to control use of their music even when legal rights of ownership remain with the institution.


Cultural Heritage Archives; Museum Archives; Intangible Cultural Heritage; Music; Applied Ethnomusicology; Cultural Repatriation; Museum-Community Relationships

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