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1996 "Collecting today for tomorrow"

International Museums Day on 18th May 1996, which is particularly important this year because it coincides with our Organisation's fiftieth anniversary, is on the theme of "Collecting today for tomorrow". This touches on the very raison d'Ítre of the museum, and its essential relationship with the notion of temporality. ICOM News would first like to record reactions to the theme by various International Committee chairpersons. Then, to open up the debate, we are making a wide appeal to our readers for contributions, which will enrich the information file we are compiling to accompany this year's International Museums Day. So, to begin the discussion, and to take the opportunity to make the public more aware of the role of museums as we reach the turn of the century, here are five key questions of concern to all museum professionals.

Collecting and ethics

Collecting, the cornerstone of every museum's vocation, is not the same today as it was in the past. It is supported by ethical rules that are clearly set out in ICOM's Professional Code of Ethics. Henceforth collecting is carried out in such a way as to respect cultural diversity, and to establish new forms of partnership.

Elisabeth des Portes
Secretary General

In the 1970s, ICOM looked into the ethics of acquisitions. A task force set up by the Executive Council got together and wrote the first text on the subject. This was to be improved and enlarged on in the Professional Code of Ethics adopted by ICOM's General Assembly in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1986.

The following are the main principles on acquisitions set out in ICOM's Professional Code of Ethics (Article 3):

3. Acquisitions to Museum Collections

3.1. Collecting Policies

Each museum authority should adopt and publish a written statement of its collecting policy. This policy should be reviewed from time to time, and at least once every five years. Objects acquired should be relevant to the purpose and activities of the museum, and be accompanied by evidence of a valid legal title. Any conditions or limitations relating to an acquisition should be clearly described in an instrument of conveyance or other written documentation. Museums should not, except in very exceptional circumstances, acquire material that the museum is unlikely to be able to catalogue, conserve, store or exhibit, as appropriate, in a proper manner. Acquisitions outside the current stated policy of the museum should only be made in very exceptional circumstances, and then only after proper consideration by the governing body of the museum itself, having regard to the interests of the objects under consideration, the national or other cultural heritage and the special interests of other museums.

3.2. Acquisition of Illicit Material

The illicit trade in objects destined for public and private collections encourages the destruction of historic sites, local ethnic cultures, theft at both national and international levels, places at risk endangered species of flora and fauna, and contravenes the spirit of national and international patrimony. Museums should recognize the relationship between the marketplace and the initial and often destructive taking of an object for the commercial market, and must recognize that it is highly unethical for a museum to support in any way, whether directly or indirectly, that illicit market.

A museum should not acquire, whether by purchase, gift, bequest or exchange, any object unless the governing body and responsible officer are satisfied that the museum can acquire a valid title to the specimen or object in question and that in particular it has not been acquired in, or exported from, its country of origin and/or any intermediate country in which it may have been legally owned (including the museum's own country), in violation of that country's laws.

So far as biological and geological material is concerned, a museum should not acquire by any direct or indirect means any specimen that has been collected, sold or otherwise transferred in contravention of any national or international wildlife protection or natural history conservation law or treaty of the museum's own country or any other country except with the express consent of an appropriate outside legal or governmental authority.

So far as excavated material is concerned, in addition to the safeguards set out above, the museum should not acquire by purchase objects in any case where the governing body or responsible officer has reasonable cause to believe that their recovery involved the recent unscientific or intentional destruction or damage of ancient monuments or archaeological sites, or involved a failure to disclose the finds to the owner or occupier of the land, or to the proper legal or governmental authorities.

If appropriate and feasible, the same tests as are outlined in the above four paragraphs should be applied in determining whether or not to accept loans for exhibition or other purposes.

3.3. Field Study and Collecting

Museums should assume a position of leadership in the effort to halt the continuing degradation of the world's natural history, archaeological, ethnographic, historic and artistic resources. Each museum should develop policies that allow it to conduct its activities within appropriate national and international laws and treaty obligations, and with a reasonable certainty that its approach is consistent with the spirit and intent of both national and international efforts to protect and enhance the cultural heritage. Field exploration, collecting and excavation by museum workers present ethical problems that are both complex and critical. All planning for field studies and field collecting must be preceded by 1 . investigation, disclosure and consultation with both the proper authorities and any interested museums or academic institutions in the country or area of the proposed study sufficient to ascertain if the proposed activity is both legal and justifiable on academic and scientific grounds. Any field programme must be executed in such a way that all participants act legally and responsibly in acquiring specimens and data, and that they discourage by all practical means unethical, illegal and destructive practices.

3.4. Co-operation between Museums in Collecting Policies

Each museum should recognize the need for co-operation and consultation between all museums with similar or overlapping interests and collecting policies, and should seek to consult with such other institutions both on specific acquisitions where a conflict of interest is thought possible and more generally, on defining areas of specialization. Museums should respect the boundaries of the recognized collecting areas of other museums and should avoid acquiring material with special local connections or of special local interest from the collecting area of another museum without due notification of intent.

3.5. Conditional Acquisitions and other Special Factors

Gifts, bequests and loans should only be accepted if they conform to the stated collecting and exhibition policies of the museum. Offers that are subject to special conditions may have to be rejected if the conditions proposed are judged to be contrary to the long-term interests of the museum and its public.

3.6. Loans to Museums

Both individual loans of objects and the mounting or borrowing of loan exhibitions can have an important role in enhancing the interest and quality of a museum and its services. However, the ethical principles outlined in paras. 3.1 to 3.5 above must apply to the consideration of proposed loans and loan exhibitions as to the acceptance or rejection of items offered to the permanent collections: loans should not be accepted nor exhibitions mounted if they do not have a valid educational, scientific or academic purpose.

3.7. Conflicts of Interest

The collecting policy or regulations of the museum should include provisions to ensure that no person involved in the policy or management of the museum, such as a trustee or other member of a governing body, or a member of the museum staff, may compete with the museum for objects or may take advantage of privileged information received because of his or her position, and that should a conflict of interest develop between the needs of the individual and the museum, those of the museum will prevail. Special care is also required in considering any offer of an item either for sale or as a tax-benefit gift, from members of governing bodies, members of staff, or the families or close associates of these.

By strictly applying the rules set out by ICOM, museums will be able to follow a clear policy and prevent questionable works entering their collections. In view of the large amount of illicit traffic in cultural property, ICOM strongly recommends all staff involved in collecting policy to apply the utmost rigour. It has become absolutely necessary to get systematic assurance from the national and international police, as well as from specialised institutions such as UNESCO, ICOM and stolen objects data bases, that items likely to be bought for, or donated to, a collection have not been obtained through theft or looting.

Changes in legislation on an international scale now fully encourage caution, since the UNIDROIT Convention adopted in Rome in 1995, which adds to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, insists on owners returning items if they cannot prove that they have made every effort (or exercised "due diligence") to make sure that the items they have acquired have not been stolen (see ICOM News, No. 1/1996).

Among others, the experience of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is a good example of the vigilance museum professionals now have to exercise. In this case, they found in a collection one of the stolen Angkor items that had been mentioned in the Looting in Angkor book (page 80), published by ICOM.

This vigilance is one of the major challenges to our profession. As we reach the end of the century, museums are duty-bound to impose ethical rules on all their partners in the profession, and particularly on the art market. They are pledging their credibility for the future.

Collecting other people's culture

Collecting policies have evolved greatly over the last few decades. They now respect other cultures, and make the collecting habits of some museums at the beginning of the century look thoroughly obsolete.

The fact that the United States adopted the regulations on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA)** is a good illustration of new concerns that are now coming to light. These regulations set up a procedure for determining the rights of Indian and Hawaiian ethnic groups to their cultural heritage, which is currently in the possession of American public institutions, or under excavation for research or other purposes.

These regulations make it compulsory for American museums to supply each Indian or Hawaiian ethnic group with information on, and an inventory of, the cultural heritage in their possession concerning the said ethnic groups. In certain conditions, the museums have to repatriate the items if the ethnic group so requests. The museum has to take into consideration whether or not the person who sold the item did so with the permission of the ethnic group.

Requests for repatriation have no time limitation.

Excavations cannot take place without first consulting the ethnic group concerned, and obtaining its approval. If a discovery is made by chance, the federal authorities have to be notified immediately.

Excavation items remain the properly of the ethnic group. In the above we can see a series of recommendations emerging that could serve as rules, reaching beyond the strictly national sphere, and which go along with the spirit of ICOM's Code of Ethics.

In the same way, ICOM's International Committee for Museums and Collections of Archaeology and History (ICMAH) is presently drawing up a code of ethics for archaeological research. This will update measures in UNESCO's 1956 Recommendation on the international principles to be applied to archaeological excavation.

We are very pleased to note that more and more museums are applying generous voluntary restitution policies, when they realise that items in their possession have been stolen, or when the items are claimed by their original communities. A case in point is the recent return of a Maya stela from the La Amelia site in Guatemala by the National Ethnographic Museum of Stockholm, Sweden.

Among purchasing museums, the Getty Museum in the United States has recently taken a stand that has attracted a lot of attention by declaring it is giving up its policy on acquisitions of antiquities to expand into partnership programmes with "exporting" countries.

** Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and Regulations are available by E-mail:

Updated: 15 September 2005