The findings of the project's intial questionnaire surveys, carried out in 1994, were published in Protecting Cultural Objects: A Preliminary Survey. Since its publication in July 1995, 12,000 copies of the report have been distributed worldwide. Protecting Cultural Objects in the Global Information Society (inset)—a short video publicizing the work of the project—was released in December 1996.

The illicit trade in cultural objects is now widely recognized as one of the most prevalent categories of international crime. As an international problem, it can be dealt with effectively only by international collaboration among diverse organizations in both the public and private sectors. There is widespread agreement that documentation is crucial to the protection of cultural objects, for stolen objects that have not been photographed and adequately described are rarely recoverable by their rightful owners. Unfortunately, very few objects have been documented to a level that can materially assist in their recovery in the event of theft. Even for objects that have been so documented, the information collected is extremely variable. It is important, therefore, that efforts be made to increase public awareness of the need to make adequate, standardized descriptions of objects.

It is one thing to encourage the compilation of descriptions of objects as a security measure, but quite another to develop effective means of circulating this documentation to organizations that can assist in the recovery of the objects if they are stolen. Ideally, the information that can identify a stolen or illegally exported object should be able to travel at least as fast as the object itself. This will mean that the information may have to cross national borders and be circulated among a number of organizations. The development of electronic networks makes this effort technically possible. But the existence of digital information and computer networks to transmit information solves only part of the problem; also needed are standards that will make it possible to exchange information in a form that is intelligible to both systems and people.

The Project

In 1993 the Getty Information Institute interviewed a number of leading national and international umbrella agencies and government bodies in order to gain an understanding of the role played by documentation in the protection of cultural objects. There was broad agreement on the need to collectively address issues relating to documentation practices and the imple-mentation of international standards. In July of that year the Institute convened a meeting in Paris to discuss the possibility of developing an international collaborative project to define documentation standards for identifying cultural objects. The meeting was attended by representatives of the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe (now the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe), the Council of Europe, the International Council of Museums, Interpol, UNESCO, and the U.S. Information Agency. The participants agreed on the need for such an initiative and recommended that it focus on developing a standard for the information required to identify cultural objects, and on the mechanisms for encouraging the implementa-tion of the standard. As a result of these consultations, a project was defined and initiated, with the following primary objectives:

The new standard is not seen as an alternative to existing standards, but rather as a minimum standard created for a specific purpose—that of describing objects to enable them to be identified. As such it can be incorporated into existing systems and nested within existing standards. It is a type of standard sometimes called a "core" standard: core because it comprises certain minimum categories of essential information that are common to a number of documentation systems, making it easier to record, use, and exchange information across systems. An important aspect of a core standard is that it provides the key to further information held in the database, both within an individual organization or elsewhere, but does not seek to "make organizations conform to systems which are incompatible with their own needs."1 Moreover, these standards are designed to be capable of being implemented in traditional, non-computerized ways of making inventories and catalogues as well as in sophisticated computerized databases.

Developing the Standard

Threats to cultural objects are of concern to organizations charged with their management, interpretation, and protection, as well as those bodies responsible for their recovery in the event of theft. Museums, law-enforcement and customs agencies, commercial art theft databases, the art trade, appraisers, and insurance companies around the world all create and hold documentation on cultural objects. From the outset, the project has recognized the need to work collaboratively with organizations in six key communities:

The information needs of these organizations inevitably vary, but all need documentation that makes it possible to identify objects. Building a broad consensus across these communities on the categories of information needed to identify objects has been the essential precondition to a successful outcome for this initiative, for a universally applicable standard can be developed only by understanding and responding to the specific needs of these different communities.


1 J. Bold, "The Documentation of the Architectural Heritage of Europe," Architectural Heritage: Inventory and Documentation Methods in Europe (Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 1993), 149.

2 R. Thornes, Protecting Cultural Objects Through International Documentation Standards: A Preliminary Survey (Santa Monica: Getty Art History Information Program, 1995).


Protecting Cultural Objects in the Global Information Society — Copyright 1997 The J. Paul Getty Trust