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Ethics and Unity of Purpose: Are You Part of the Problem or the Key to the Solution?

Ethics and Unity of Purpose: Are You Part of the Problem or the Key to the Solution?

On the surface, museums and private collectors have shared aims; both love to collect objects of interest and to flaunt their best finds. Beyond this, however, the similarities should and do differ, at least on paper, because of the underlying motivation for collecting. 

Private collectors focus inward and act for their own personal interests and pleasure. They may purchase objects as a form of financial investment or to have the gratification of possessing unique items and displaying them to demonstrate their artistic sensitivities and sophistication or just to impress. 

For museums, the focus should be outward. Many museums today had their origins as private collections, but something changed in those collector’s mindsets that put them on the course to embrace the public good. These museum founders realized that preserving objects for future generations and allowing these objects to tell important stories about human artistic, scientific or cultural endeavors and humanity’s place in the natural world was a noble enterprise. They understood that sharing would, in the long-term, create greater pleasure and impact than possessing the object privately ever could. 

This dichotomy between these interior- and exterior-focused perspectives creates a tension that has proven challenging to keep separate and pure, leading to unfortunate consequences. 

In the Ideal World

Museums have the duty to acquire, preserve, and promote their collections as a contribution to safeguarding the natural, cultural, scientific heritage. Their collections are a significant public inheritance, have a special position in law and are protected by international legislation. Inherent in this public trust is the notion of stewardship that includes rightful ownership, permanence, documentation, accessibility, and responsible disposal.

Quotation from the International Council of Museums (ICOM) Code of Ethics for Museums, Section 2.

One the most important museum practices within the ideal stated above is to ensure that all prospective objects presented for acquisition review have documented legal title which shows that the object was legally obtained by the donor. For instance, the object came from a permitted archeological dig; was not previously stolen from a museum or private collection; or was exported from its country of origin following appropriate international laws, agreements and regulations (The UNESCO Convention 1972 being one of the most important). 

The ICOM Code of Ethics goes on to state that, “Museums should not acquire objects where there is reasonable cause to believe their recovery involved unauthorized or unscientific fieldwork, or intentional destruction or damage of monuments, archaeological or geological sites, or of species or natural habitats.” The idea behind this statement is that if we can decrease the demand and, in turn, limit the profit margin in the illicit object market, we have a better chance of eliminating it all together.  

In addition, determination of legal ownership can become even more complicated when objects were obtained through non-standard types of theft, such as colonial legally-sanctioned scientific “theft” during nineteenth-century archeological excavations or cultural material taken from native peoples without permission or situational theft committed during civil unrest, ethnic cleansing actions, or wartime with one of the most recent being the looting of museums during and after the Iraq War.

In recent years, museums have become more sensitive to the rights of victims of outright theft, colonialism, and other violence and will often return personal, tribal or national cultural treasures to the aggrieved parties out of respect. Museums that do not want to become involved in negative legal entanglements on these issues are wise to institute solid gatekeeping practices at the point of acquisition and to create a collection record review process to ensure no objects were acquired historically through unsavory means and act proactively when such objects are found. 

The museum field, as well as law enforcement agencies such as INTERPOL, have established databases (“registers”) to assist in this research and to facilitate either formal direct return to or negotiated settlements between the parties involved, as needed. This is a big step in improving the transparency and accountability of museums and puts thieves on notice. Thus, ethical practice has the potential to keep us all honest. Yet, sadly many stolen objects just disappear into private collections or are sold, aided by private auction houses that neglect their title research or see profit as more important.

Museum Leaders Behaving Badly 

Museums are not paragons of virtue by any means and sometimes contribute to the problem. Having worked with numerous board members (who are often private collectors themselves), private collectors, and museum curators over the years, I know it can be very hard for some to turn off the private collector mindset. Art museums, in particular, face myriad pressures to acquire the most expensive Monet or the largest collection of tenth-century Islamic manuscripts. These institutions often get so caught up in the race to achieve “higher and better” that they forget to uphold the museum field’s foundational ethical principles. 

A good example of museum curators behaving badly is from the late 2000s, when the world learned that the J. Paul Getty Museum’s antiquities curator, Marion True, had for years been instructing potential donors of Italian antiquities to purchase objects with uncertain provenance with the promise that the museum would later acquire them. Basically, this action  would “cleanse” the objects of uncertain provenance by establishing a false front of ownership—what the judge in this case called “collection laundering.” And this is just one of many examples of how the collector mentality can bend situations wildly out of kilter. In all instances of misdeeds, those involved forgot their public trust responsibilities. 

What Does This All Mean?

Someone once explained to me that the difference between ethics and the law is that ethics insists on practices that, if followed, keep one away from legal entanglements. Private collectors and museums, as well as intermediaries like auction houses, would do well to remember this. Our unity of purpose should always be our responsibility to preserve our common heritage for future generations. Knowing and following ethical standards will help ensure that we do. 

Important Resources

Museum Codes of Ethics

American Alliance of Museums. Code of Ethics. Washington, DC: American Alliance of Museums, 2000. AAM Code of Ethics for Museums – American Alliance of Museums (aam-us.org)

International Council of Museums (ICOM). Code of Ethics for Museums. Paris, France: International Council of Museums (ICOM), 2004. https://cimam.org/resources-publications/icom-code-ethics/#:~:text=The ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums sets,principles supported by guidelines detailing expected professional practice.

Museum Best Practice 

American Association for State and Local History. The Capitalization of Collections: Ethics Position Paper #1.  Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History, 2003.

Pos Paper 1 on Cap Coll (aamg-us.org)

Association of Art Museum Directors. Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art. 2013 Revision.  Association of Art Museum Directors, 2013. New Acquisitions of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art | Association of Art Museum Directors (aamd.org)

Rebecca A. Buck and Jean Allman Gilmore. eds. Museum Registration Methods 5th Edition. 

Washington, DC: The AAM Press American Association of Museums, 2011. 

Marie C. Maloro. A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

John E. Simmons. Things Great and Small: Collection Management Policies. Second Edition. Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Internet Links to Stolen Art Databases 

  • NOTE: Many countries have similar database systems and all work in partnership in an cooperative international effort to track down stolen art. 

*Karen Whitehair has worked in the museum field for over thirty years in organizations as varied as the National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, and various historic sites in and around the Washington, DC region. Her work has focused predominately on museum collections management. She is currently working as an independent museum consultant, writer, and historian.

Written by
Karen Whitehair

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Karen Whitehair

Karen Whitehair has worked in the museum field for over thirty years in organizations as varied as the National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, and various historic sites in and around the Washington, DC region. Her work has focused predominately on museum collections management. She is currently working as an independent museum consultant, writer, and historian.

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