The museum community plays an active role in the protection of cultural objects. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) has taken a lead role in mobilizing international networks of museum professionals to combat the illicit trade. ICOM's One Hundred Missing Objects series is drawing attention to thefts from museums and the looting of archaeological sites (reproduced by courtesy of the International Council of Museums).


Thefts from museums around the world have increased significantly in the last twenty years. In Africa objects have been stolen from a number of museums, including the national museums of Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Egypt, the Ivory Coast, Libya, Nigeria, and Zaire. In an eighteen-month period in 1994 and 1995, there were major thefts from all three of Nigeria's principal museums (Ife, Jos, and Ibadan).1 In Latin America thefts have occurred from small museums at archaeological sites, such as Inga Pica Museum (on Ecuador's only Inca site); regional museums, such as the Nicolas Avelladana Museum of Tucumán (Argentina);2 and major museums, including the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City3 and the National Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in Lima, Peru.4 In Europe and North America there have been a number of well-publicized art thefts from major museums, including paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, and Manet from the Gardner Museum, Boston, in 1990; 20 paintings by van Gogh from Amsterdam in 1991; works by Picasso and Braque from Stockholm in 1993; Munch's The Scream from Oslo in February 1994; and two Turners from Frankfurt in July 1994. Less well publicized have been the far more numerous thefts of lesser-known objects from both large and small museums in many countries.5 In 1995 museums accounted for 25 percent of thefts on which notices were issued by Interpol's Secretariat General.

War too has taken its toll on museum collections. The National Museum in Kabul lost 90 percent of its collection during the civil war in that country.6 The Musée de Beirut, Lebanon, was reduced to a burnt-out shell by 15 years of civil war. During the Gulf War, Kuwait notified UNESCO of the removal of thousands of cultural objects by the occupying Iraqi forces.7 Iraq lost many objects belonging to the National Museum in Baghdad, these being taken from the provincial museums to which they had been dispersed for safety at the outset of the war.8

The museum community is playing an active role in the protection of cultural objects, not only because of the losses sustained by museums but also because of a concern among museum professionals about the threat the illicit trade poses to the world's cultural heritage. The International Council of Museums (ICOM), in particular, has sought to combat the illicit trade by "promoting professional ethics," "reinforcing safety conditions for collections," and "mobilizing international professional networks."9 Together with UNESCO, ICOM has organized workshops for museum professionals, police, and customs officers on the illicit traffic in cultural objects in Tanzania (1993), Mali (1994), Ecuador (1995), and Zaire (1996). ICOM works to recover stolen and looted objects and to raise public awareness of the threat to the cultural heritage posed by the illicit trade, and circulates information about stolen objects. ICOM News reproduces photographs and announcements of missing objects that have been listed by Interpol. In addition, the organization has produced three books in a series entitled One Hundred Missing Objects. The first of these, Looting in Angkor (1993), drew attention to the looting and destruction of Khmer sites in Cambodia; the second, Looting in Africa (1994), provided illustrations and descriptions of objects stolen from African museums and a chapter on looted archaeological sites; the third, Looting in Latin America (1997), will also include information on objects stolen from museums and looted sites.

Elisabeth des Portes, Secretary General of ICOM, has pointed out that the security of museum collections is provided through "staff training, setting up inventories, security measures and awareness campaigns directed towards the public."10 She argues that inventories "constitute an essential part of collection security," since "only the inventory index can both prove a museum's ownership of an object and help in the object's identifica-tion." The importance of inventories is also recognized by those responsible for museum security. The recommendations of the 1977 UNESCO technical handbook on the security of museums and monuments advise that there should be "An inventory record of each work of art, including description of its condition, housed in fireproof, lockable files with a microfilm duplicate set in a secure location such as a bank vault."11

In the last twenty years the museum world has given a great deal of thought to the devel-opment of standards for cataloguing objects in its collections. In 1978 Robert Chenhall and Peter Homulos provided two explanations of the museum community's increased awareness of a need for systematic documentation.12 Their first explanation was that museum collections were "being used by more people in more different ways than ever before," and their second, "that the widespread availability of computer technology has made it feasible to think about creating adequate records for the millions of objects stored in museums."13 Writing two years later, Andrew Roberts and Richard Light observed that the wish to computerize museum records had "forced curators to look critically at the information being recorded," with the resulting need "to assess individual fields or categories that could be considered to make up a typical museum record and which together formed a data standard."14

In 1978 Chenhall and Homulos put forward a list of 16 "minimum" categories, six of which were to serve as a means of "identifying uniquely the object." The remaining categories were to provide "information to be used in the preparation of internal museum reports," or "to record the history of ownership and use" of the object.15 They argued that a list of minimum categories would be useful, irrespective of the type of collection. However, they recognized that particular museums would need additional categories "in order to provide for research objectives and any other specialized purposes that the documentation is intended to serve."16

The museum community continues to work on the development of information guidelines and standards.17 Most active in this field has been ICOM's International Documentation Committee (CIDOC), which has produced a Data Model for museum documentation, International Guidelines for Museum Object Information (the CIDOC Information Categories),18 an Ethnology/Ethnography Data Standard, and the International Core Data Standard for Archaeological Sites and Monuments. One of the most important museum documentation standards of recent years is that developed by ICOM's AFRICOM Programme.19 The AFRICOM Handbook of Standards Documenting African Collections recognizes that one of the aims of museum documentation is to "Ensure the security of objects by an inventory of all the collections which includes minimal information permitting the identification of each object or specimen."20

New challenges have faced those who develop standards for the museum community, among others the growing number of uses to which museum documentation is being put, and the fact that this information has become important in its own right, rather than simply produced in support of other activities:

New expectations of visitors, the increasing economic importance of cultural tourism, information requirements from new categories of users (e.g., art traders, publishers, cultural mediators, police authorities, etc.) mean that documenta-tion—in a broad sense—is becoming one of the major productions of museums and cultural organizations. The nature of documentation is evolving: initially designed by curators and researchers for their own needs and those of their immediate colleagues (preservation, restoration, cataloguing, loan management), documentation is more often now considered as a support for organizing and producing cultural events and products targeted to a large and diversified audience.21

Museum documentation owes much of its newly won status to the possibilities created by recent developments in information technology, ranging from commercial products such as CD-ROMs to international projects that create electronic links between specific sectors of the cultural heritage community. The latter include Remote Access to Museum Archives (RAMA), the Visual Arts Network for the Exchange of Cultural Knowledge (VAN EYCK), and more recently AQUARELLE—all of which aim to enable member institutions to exchange data and images electronically.22

Looking back at the museum community's experience of standards development over the past two decades, Alice Grant of the Science Museum, London, has observed that its demands of documentation standards are constantly changing:

A few years ago we wanted a documen-tation standard to help us catalogue our objects. The next step was to represent our understanding of information in rigorous methodological formats and then to simplify and re-present those views in ways which could be understood by all. Then we requested help with procedures as our view of documentation expanded to embrace collections management issues. Our holy grail subsequently became the search for a core standard as the ultimate documentation tool.23

She argues that it is inevitable that standards will continue to develop to meet new needs. The solution, she believes, is "a framework of standards, parts of which can be selected to address the job in hand. Moreover, single elements of such a framework might be more easily updated to respond to rapidly changing business and technical environments." She sees Object ID as part of this framework because it serves "well-defined needs."


1 E. des Portes, "ICOM and the Battle Against Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property," Museum International, Vol. 48, No. 3 (1996), 51.

2 I. Graham, "Looters Rob Graves and History," National Geographic, Vol. 169, No. 4 (April 1986), 452-460.

3 des Portes, 1996, 52.

4 R.T. de Araúz, "Museums and the Containment of Illicit Traffic," Museum, Vol. 34 (1982), 134-136.

5 "Bandits Steal Pieces of American History from Tiny Museums," Wall Street Journal, April 30, 1996.

6 Art Newspaper, December 1996.

7 Approximately 25,000 museum items have since been returned under UN supervision.

8 C. Renfrew, "Art Fraud: Raiders of the Lost Past," Journal of Financial Crime, Vol. 3, No. 1 (1995), 7. See also Lost Heritage: Antiquities Stolen from Iraq's Regional Museums, fascicle 1 (Chicago: American Association for Oriental Research in Baghdad, 1992), and fascicle 2 (London: British School for Archaeology in Iraq, 1993).

9 E. des Portes, "The Fight Against Illicit Traffic in Cultural Property: A Priority for Museum Professionals," H. Leyton, ed., Illicit Traffic in Cultural Property: Museums against Pillage (Amsterdam: Royal Tropical Institute, The Netherlands and Musée National du Mali, 1995), 35.

10 des Portes, 1995, 35.

11 W.A. Bostick, The Guarding of Cultural Property, Technical handbooks for museums and monuments (Paris: UNESCO, 1977), 16. See also D. Liston, ed., Museum Security and Protection: A Handbook for Cultural Heritage Institutions (London: Routledge/ICOM, 1993), 99.

12 R.G. Chenhall and P. Homulos, "Museum Data Standards," Museum, Vol. 314 (1978), 205.

13 Ibid.

14 D.A. Roberts and R.B. Light, "Progress in Documentation," Journal of Documentation, Vol. 36, No. 1 (1980), 47.

15 Chenhall and Homulos, 210-211.

16 Chenhall and Homulos, 210.

17 At the time of publication a number of guidelines and standards are available on the World Wide Web, including the following:
Categories for the Description of Works of Art: http://www.gii.getty.edu/cdwa/
CHIN Humanities Data Dictionary:
CIDOC Data Model: http://www.nrm.se/cidoc/model/relational.model CIDOC Guidelines:
http://www. cidoc.icom.org/guide0.htm
CIDOC Ethnology/Ethnography Data Standard: http://www.cidoc.icom.org/ethhst0.htm
SPECTRUM: The U.K. Museum Documentation Standard: http://www.open.gov.uk/mdocassn/mdaspec1.htm

18 International Guidelines for Museum Object Information: The CIDOC Information Categories, ICOM CIDOC (1995). The project team declares itself "aware that these Guidelines have not acquired the status of an official standard. At this point they should be read as a proposal towards a consensus throughout the international museum community."

19 The AFRICOM Programme was established as a collaboration among six African museums: Nairobi National Museum, Kenya; National Museums Institute, Zaire; Bamako National Museum, Mali; Madagascar National Museum; Namibia National Museum; Bardo Museum, Tunisia. See also: http://www.cidoc/stand3.htm

20 Handbook of Standards Documenting African Collections (Paris: ICOM, 1996), 7.

21 AQUARELLE Vision. n.d.

22 RAMA, Van Eyck, and AQUARELLE are projects under the aegis of the Commission of the European Community.

23 A. Grant, "Museums, Information and Collaboration: Why a Single Standard is Not Enough," presented at ICOM conference, Stavanger, Norway, 1995.


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