"Collecting today for tomorrow"
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.
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.
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
following are the main principles on acquisitions set out
in ICOM's Professional Code of Ethics (Article 3):
Acquisitions to Museum Collections
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.
Acquisition of Illicit Material
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Field Study and Collecting
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.
Co-operation between Museums in Collecting Policies
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
Conditional Acquisitions and other Special Factors
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.
Loans to Museums
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.
Conflicts of Interest
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
other people's culture
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
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.
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.
for repatriation have no time limitation.
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
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.
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
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.
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
Native American Graves Protection
and Repatriation Act and Regulations
are available by E-mail: SamBall@nps.gov