Sunday, May 12, 2013

Museums and the Market: When Cultural Institutions Must Sell

An interesting and thought provoking piece has come to my attention recently. It specifically posits the question of what, and to what extent, an established but deeply indebted museum (using Chicago's Field Museum as an example) can sell off previously held collections on the open market. Using the example of the sale of several paintings by Catlin in order to raise proceeds to pay curatorial staff who originally tended the collections, the question of how respectable museums can adapt to times of budgetary stress in an ethical manner comes to mind.

Some have argued for the legal release and sale of artifacts or pieces of artifacts (such as ceramic sherds) in which numerous allegedly identical examples might be found in any one excavation. I would respond by saying that just because two or more objects LOOK the same stylistically does not mean future scientific analysis won't reveal different manufacturing centres, raw material types, or adhering residues that could explain differences in archaeological context. Within the academy, the fields of archaeology and physical anthropology are becoming increasingly focused on methodological advances in "archaeological science" (archaeometry) to breathe new life into old collections or previously curated remains...revealing increasingly minute details of human life history or artifact manufacture, exchange, and use.

Carrying out new excavations successfully (for research purposes) is not only tied to the availability of funds (and thus national, state and local fluctuations in the economy), but also requires a certain degree of luck to find in-tact and well preserved sites before the global antiquities trade claims them. The role of museums and secondary collections in the continuation of global archaeological and anthropological research is therefore not to be underestimated. Selling off already curated items (even with paperwork attached) should therefore be avoided at all costs as, even if this trade would arguably be more "licit," it would still be detrimental to overall scholarly efforts to truly understand and share the past, not just aesthetically "appreciate" it.

Another issue raised is the concept of "donor security" being shaken if it became known that high-profile institutions are being forced to sell or auction off collections. Apparently, if donors get jittery that items they have consigned to museums for long-term safe keeping will now be sold off, and possibly not even returned to them, they will be less likely to donate in the first place. Even in Western countries, where storage space, proper curatorial technique, and security tends to be less of an issue, good intentions will never entirely buffer against ill economic winds.

If the items in questions (e.g. antiquities or fossils) have known or suspected illicit origins, it would seem likely that the economic hardship affecting many of the world's museums would only increase the likelihood of unscrupulous dealers or collectors continuing to do wrong by humanity's past by choosing the "free market" of the no-questions-asked antiquities trade as the final destination for items they no longer want the burden of holding on to. What can be done about this, in relation to the antiquities and fossil trade especially?

It's a tough question, but one that needs practical solutions, barring the sudden generation of revenue from thin air. Will previously free museums have to begin charging entrance fees or levy taxes on acquisitions from private donors? Making "gifts" and "bequests" no longer able to receive tax write-offs could be a start (and would, in my opinion, perhaps make donors more prone to double checking ownership history and documentation). I don't pretend to have a solution readily at hand, but I would love to discuss this topic further. How do YOU think cash-strapped museums can raise revenue without sacrificing too many employees, their ability to provide documented collections for new research, or indirectly fueling the antiquities trade?    


  1. Hi Damien,

    Re: Donor Security, Many bequests to museums have legal clauses stating that the items cannot under any circumstances be de-accessioned. This has been the case since early 20th century and probably even before. So the selling off of museum objects is not a new phenomenon and donors are acutely aware of this, hence the legal provisions in most bequests. By the way, its now public knowledge that in the 1930s the EFEO was facing a financial crisis and sold off many Khmer pieces to western museums, there is even a book about it now. Prominent names such as George Coedes were involved in this process....

  2. Hi Stephen,

    Very interesting, so thanks for this information. It's somewhat reassuring that antiquities given in this way won't leave... Does this guarantee that those who "bequest" will also perform due diligence? I doubt it...but at least said items, even of dubious origin, will remain in a museum. Out of curiosity, what is the name of that book you mention? Thanks!

  3. It has been a given in museums that the only reason to de-accession is to obtain funds to upgrade the collections and sell like for like- not as in the case of the Albright-Knox that sold antiquities to buy Modern Art. An interesting case in point is the Williams College Art Museum that sold off an Assyrian relief to buy a group of objects which today are worth only a tiny fraction of what the relief would be worth today. Selling off collections to pay for operating expenses of a Museum is like dipping into the principal, you undercut your own future. Administrators are drawn to deaccessioning because it is an easy out, There are many other ways to generate money, and with the vast collections the Field Museum has they could be doing a lot more lending and traveling exhibitions then they currently do.

  4. If you look at some of the premier museums such as the N.Y.Met's website they lead you to the shopping site of garbage. The problem is a lack of public support. Legal will bend because the public that is not involved will not care.
    the point is made there are only four comments, intelligent or caring.
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