Cultural property and museum ethics – a class response

Haidy Geismar, NYU
I am currently teaching a graduate seminar “cultural property, rights and museums” in the NYU Program for Museum Studies. During this week’s class we had a tour of the Greek, Roman, and Ancient Near Eastern Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with curator Oscar Muscarella. Muscarella is somewhat notorious for his outspoken criticism of the complicity of museum curators in the illicit trade and plunder of world cultural heritage and despite the truth of what he says is ostracized by many in the museum world.
From our perspective, as museum studies students, and anthropologists, it seems self-evident to expose the complex ways in which looted objects are authenticated via fine-art display strategies (as context free and therefore not linked to particular pillaged sites) and to understand the social dynamics of the art world in which the social world of collectors and collections overshadows the seamier side of illicit trade.
Cindy Ho from Saving Antiquities for Everyone asked us to think about the new ethical guidelines developed by the American Association of Museums which lay out a series of principles for ethical collections all museums should adhere to (see, and see the ICOM guidelines and I asked the class to read the guidelines and make suggestions around ways in which museums could activate ethics in a more publicly available manner (I mean, who has ever seen an exhibition which explains how the objects came into the museum or deals with the intricacies of looting, pillaging, dealing and collecting? In the Metropolitan Museum, objects loaned by the Italian government in return for the repatriation of the Euphronios Krater are labelled with large red labels as Major Loans but there is no explanation as to why these pieces would literally be red flagged and a museum visitor would have no knowledge of the controversy that has arisen around many objects on display).
I thought I would use materialworldblog as a forum to extend our class discussion and open the debate to wider readers – what do we think about the remit of ethical guidelines and their efficacy? How can museums make these issues more available to the public and should this be part of the guidelines themselves? How come ethics and law are so separated on these issues? What responsibilities do museums have in these debates and how should they position themselves?
Class, and anyone else, please weigh in, in the comments below….

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15 Responses to Cultural property and museum ethics – a class response

  1. Cherkea, NYU and AMNH October 21, 2008 at 12:44 pm #

    As an archaeologist, I have been concerned about clandestine excavations and the illicit antiquities trade for some time. Now, as a museum professional, I am worried that our institutions are not doing all they can to create awareness of this problem. Museums need to stop supporting the black/art market and dealers as well as the collectors who purchase illicit antiquities. The ultimate solution is to create an environment where objects ripped from the ground no longer have commercial value. In this way, museums would not be spending millions of dollars to encourage further looting and the destruction of knowledge. Within the institutions, steps should be taken to form strong ethical policies and publicize them. Through publication, the public is made aware of the problem and can help monitor the museums’ operations. Change has to come from the inside and large institutions like the Met should make strong ethical statements to right their wrongs and lead us into a new era.

  2. Karla, NYU October 21, 2008 at 3:27 pm #

    By principal, museums should respect tangible and intangible natural and cultural heritage; they are protectors and promoters of human heritage through physical or financial resources. ICOM and AAM recommend that museums acquire objects with satisfactory valid title; they should also be prepared to initiate dialogues for the return of cultural property to the country of origin. These recommendations are not always followed. Museums need to liable for their actions. For museums like the Met whose history expands over 100 years, returning objects may not be the ideal situation. I would recommend reaching a compromise. If the country of origin/museum and the museum could agree on a long term loan agreement, the object could be enjoyed by visitors at both locations. I would include in the label description that the object will return to its country of origin so that visitors are aware of this special object and respect cultural property. When the object is no longer at the museum, the curators could include a computer interactive or small label explaining where the object is currently located.

  3. Alexis, NYU October 21, 2008 at 5:33 pm #

    AAM’s COE is broad, and its problems arise largely from this broad (and often vague) approach, as well as its choice of words. For example, the AAM COE outlines a “duty of loyalty” that “must never be compromised.” While this “duty of loyalty” is meant to address issues of self-dealing, the phrasing of this section on loyalty reads as a call for loyalty no matter what the circumstances. In addition, the AAM COE states that the governing authority of a museum should ensure that “its members understand and fulfill their trusteeship and act corporately, not as individuals [emphasis added].” The use of the word “corporately” rather than “collectively” or even “on behalf of the institution” is a rather strange one. Acting “corporately” could be interpreted as meaning that the museum, not the individuals within it, are responsible for the acts of those individuals, and there is no personal liability. This phrasing may undermine any impact of measures in the AAM COE prohibiting self-dealing. With respect to claims over ownership of objects in a museum, the AAM Codes of Ethics says little more than that the claimants should be treated with respect, while there is no actual guidance on handling such claims or even avoiding them. The major issue with the AAM COE is that it lacks real guidelines for accountability, using words like “encourage,” “should,” and “recommend,” but offering no real authority over a group of institutions that it acknowledges are self-regulating.
    The ICOM COE cleverly uses membership to compel museums to subscribe to its COE. Nonetheless, while the ICOM COE is far more detailed and stringent than the AAM COE, requiring specific actions from its members, including, notably, due diligence into the provenance of objects a museum is planning to acquire, a lack of authority and enforceability is what the AAM COE shares with the ICOM COE. While it is clear that these two organizations are trying to walk a fine line between compelling museums to behave a certain way (which they do not likely have the authority to do) and promoting self-regulation, at the very least, either organization could keep a database, like that of a state Bar Association or a state Better Business Bureau, which would record and rank ethical behavior of museums. After all, a poor review might, for example, give pause to individuals or other institutions that were contemplating loaning a poorly rated museum their objects.

  4. Cherkea, NYU and AMNH October 21, 2008 at 7:48 pm #

    What is interesting is that you must take into account which museums are a part of these (AAM and ICOM) organizations and whether they have adopted these Codes of Ethics or created their own. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has frequently acknowledged their commitment as a universal museum in hosting cultural heritage from around the world. It is also one of the signers of the “Declaration on the importance and value of universal museums” (2002) see: Remarks from Harold Holzer, the MMA’s vice president for communication and marketing, confirmed in discussions in 2003 that the museum’s acquisition policies are guided by those set forth by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). The Code of Ethics from AAMD written in 1966 and subsequently amended directly states that “a museum director should not knowingly acquire or allow to be recommended for acquisition any object that has been stolen, removed in contravention of treaties or international conventions to which the United States is a signatory, or illegally imported in the United States” see: The Met’s actions have directly contradicted this code. Additionally, the museum has not made its antiquities-acquisition policy public. Objects from private collections or gifts with dubious origins are displayed in the newly constructed gallery for Greek and Roman Art. This gallery was funded by collectors who have financially supported the trade of illicit material and sit on the Board of Trustees. The MMA has recently been active in the repatriation (noted as transfer) of artifacts, especially to Italy as seen during Nostoi exhibit (2008) in the Palazzo Poli in Rome. They should be commended for this effort, but yes, they do need to go beyond such small demonstrations to make a strong moral and ethical statement.

  5. Rachel, NYU October 22, 2008 at 9:27 pm #

    As someone from both a museum and an archaeology background I view the ethical policies proposed by ICOM and AAM as not only beneficial to the archaeology and academic communities but also to the museum world in maintaining a transparent collecting policies. ICOM’s and AAM’s ethical guidelines, while important, are too broad and are not accessible to most members of the public. If a larger portion of visitors to museums knew about some of the atrocities done by museums and private collectors in the name of collection making perhaps museums would be forced to really adhere to a more ethical approach. Unfortunately, it is also possible that many people outside of the museum world might not care how the collections are acquired as long as they have access to them at their local institutions. I suggest that we start motivating the general public to question the museums they visit. In making this easier there are perhaps several things that could be done by museums:
    • Have links to these codes on the websites of museums that belong to these organizations.
    • Make these guidelines available in the museum and have a pledge from the museum to uphold these ethics.
    • Museums should make more transparent the origin of their collections. Perhaps a more detailed (or in some case, honest) provenance and acquisition information should become a standard information line on museum labels such as artist, title, place of creation/origin, date, etc.

  6. Erica, NYU October 23, 2008 at 9:45 am #

    While museums stand as keepers of the public trust, the public also knows that they are inherent institutions that are subject to the theories and practices of prior administrations, audiences, and collecting methodologies. For this reason, I believe that the MOST ethical practice contemporary administrations and educators can do is to acknowledge the unsavory methods of acquiring material in the past and refocus on the museum’s collection and standing within their professional and public communities. I think that the entire profession would benefit from the public understanding of how collections were obtained during the age of imperialism while generating public understanding that museums are institutions of reorganization and modernity. With this professional acknowledgment, a closer look at individual object’s history would be needed with the understanding that regardless of how the object entered the collection, its safety and care remain the museum’s primary responsibilities. With this unveiling of the wrongful acts of past administrations and collectors, the museum would be the critical driving force to stop, or severely hinder, contemporary looting. Education would clearly need to be centered around the unethical and unlawful act of looting and the damage looting causes to our world heritage, thus giving an avenue to discuss cultural heritage a more easy to understand framework among objects. However, while knowingly exhibiting objects without proper provenience in an effort to publicly denounce the act of looting, the objects that are acquired must be done as a good faith effort to ensure the protection of the object while the museum only accepts donations and will not purchase or deaccession an object for trade.
    This proposal stems from section 3.4 of ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums, 2006 3.4 Exceptional Collecting of Primary Evidence: In exceptional cases an item without provenance may have such an inherently outstanding contribution to knowledge that it would be in the public interest to preserve it. The acceptance of such an item into a museum collection should be the subject of a decision by specialists in the discipline concerned and without national or international prejudice.
    In Brief:
    Acknowledge the wrongful ideologies of collecting administrations of the past.
    Exhibit looted objects and denounce the stolen art market within public education.
    Act as a “safe haven” for object donation that have surfaced without provenience.
    Of course this is completely unrealistic when considering the large disconnect between “high culture” art museums catering to a high power elite and professional/academia who understand the world cultural value of these objects, particularly pertaining to archaeological context and rightful ownership.

  7. Morag Kersel University of Toronto October 23, 2008 at 10:19 am #

    In discussing the ethical policies of the AAM and the AAMD in my class on Archaeological Ethics and Law, we were intrigued by the AAMD statement supporting licit markets as an effective means of preventing looting. Despite evidence indicating a casual relationship between the demand for archaeological material in the marketplace and the looting of sites, the AAMD clings to the notion of a licit market as a panacea for looting. We were encouraged by their acknowledgement of the 1970 date, the need for sound documentation and the encouragement of greater diligence in acquisitions and donations. Clearly an interesting topic, which engenders a lot of debate.

  8. Joanna S, NYU October 23, 2008 at 8:23 pm #

    A more active role of museums is necessary to emphasize what happens when ethical standards are violated and for the public to be made more aware these occurances. It seems that since nothing occurs to institutions that violate the codes of conduct, the practices continue and are encouraged. Any objects that lack information regarding origin should be pulled from the visible collection and catalogues and studied to determine the legality of their acquisition. Academic access to these objects for research purposes should also be eliminated. Any objects on display that have ambiguous origins encourage the collection of illegally acquired materials. A firm stance is necessary to stop such a practice. The lax terminology within the ICOM Code of Ethics offers suggestions as opposed to rules. Individuals that participate in the acquisition of clearly illegal goods shall be taken from their position and the public shall be informed of such actions. By publicly emphasizing the repercussions of such actions, individuals with collecting authority will be more diligent in investigating due diligence. Loss of government funding or fines should be instituted to curtail such practices within museums. Museums should also act as a system of maintaining credibility within the community. Loans for exhibition should be denied when questionable objects are not being investigated. Information and access to facilities should also be denied to institutions who refuse to submit to the ethic codes promoted by ICOM and AAM. Affiliation to both of these groups should be denied/suspended when illegal actions come into light.
    Another, idealist, way to confront the issue would be to have a universal database to which all dealers and collectors subscribe to, including museums. Objects that are up for auction should be made available, along with their appropriate information. Questions of authenticity or origin of an object can be opened up for discussion and property authorities would be notified.

  9. Anne, NYU October 24, 2008 at 1:37 pm #

    How is ICOM addressing the issues of cultural property in museums? I explored the evolution of the ICOM code of ethics by comparing the text of the 2001 code with the 2006 code. In what ways can the institutional members of ICOM respond to these changes?
    The ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums “sets minimum standards of professional practice and performance for museums and their staff. In joining the organization, ICOM members undertake to abide by this Code.” (
    In 2001, recommendations were made for professional practice evaluation standards regarding the return and restitution of cultural property. These guidelines were located in the section regarding de-accessioning/disposal of collections, and gave advice to its members on how “museums should approach the return and restitution of cultural property.” (2001: 4.4)
    The revised recommendations in 2006 addressed this issue under the heading of community relations, when it recognized that museums have obligations to two stakeholders: “Museums work in close collaboration with the communities from which their collections originate as well as those they serve.” (2006: 6)
    Museums could play a more instrumental role, both as liaison between these two communities and as educator of the potential consumer. By prominently displaying their ICOM membership in publications and on the web site, museums could publicly affirm their adherence to the ethics committee guidelines. For example, ICOM continues to stress the imperative that valid provenance/title accompany all acquisitions. (2006: 2.2, 2.3) Since the release of these 2006 guidelines, the ICOM ethics committee has worked in partnership with INTERPOL and UNESCO, strongly encouraging Internet sales platforms to post a disclaimer about the obligation for the internet buyer to “request evidence of seller’s legal title” prior to purchase of cultural objects. (ICOM press release Paris – 5 July 2007)
    Museum must extend to their audiences, both in-person and on-line, access to the most current international guidelines regarding the acquisition of cultural property.

  10. Georgina, NYU October 24, 2008 at 6:23 pm #

    Revealing provenance
    Section 4.2 of ICOM’s 2006 Code of Ethics stipulates that museums must give appropriate consideration to all known groups represented by objects on display, raising the question: how should museums display objects with unknown or contested provenance? How, for example, should museums display objects collected through colonial conquest?
    Object labels are one location where museums may be publicly reflexive and make transparent their histories of collecting, an idea illustrated by the labelling of Kwagiulth potlatch artefacts in the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, recorded by anthropologist James Clifford in 1988.
    “Large white cards [were] propped on the platform among the regalia bearing texts and quotations selected by Kwagiulth community members. The cards included recent reminiscences by elders; quotations from the Indian agent Halliday’s reports, paternalistic in tone; descriptions by other agents and missionaries of ‘heathen’ customs; a 1919 petition by chiefs protesting the suppression of the potlatch…; a message from Franz Boas from a Kwagiulth chief…; a quotation from a 1922 letter by the Chief Inspector of Indian Agencies… and so forth.”
    Clifford described how the Kwagiulth artefacts were labelled to impress upon the viewer their historically contested cultural value; in effect, the labels asked the viewer to make up his/her own mind about the history of meanings of the artefacts on display, within and beyond the Museum.
    Referencing Michael Baxandall’s essay “Exhibiting Intention”, Clifford described the labels at the U’mista Cultural Centre as “interpretations that serve to open a meaningful space between the object’s maker, its exhibitor, and its viewer, with the latter given the task of intentionally, actively, building cultural translations and critical meanings.” Baxandall suggests that the maker, exhibitor and viewer of an object can come into contact, can even collide, in what he terms “the intellectual space”. By writing labels which are thought-provoking even provocative, museums create a dynamic intellectual space, in which “the viewer, moving about in the space between object and label, is highly active.”
    James Clifford, “Four Northwest Coast Museums: Travel Reflections,” in Exhibiting Cultures: the Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, ed. Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine, (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991).
    Michael Baxandall, “Exhibiting Intention: Some Preconditions of the Visual Display of Culturally Purposeful Objects,” in Exhibiting Cultures: the Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, ed. Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991).

  11. Joanna A, NYU October 26, 2008 at 10:21 pm #

    The ICOM and AAM policies present guidelines that museums should comply with in order to maintain basic ethical standards. They detail practices for ethical collection and presentation as specifically as possible, but also so they can be applied to different types of museums both internationally and here in America. This is all well and good, however, like others have pointed out in the above comments, where is the element of enforceability? Unless a museum pays to be a member of the organizations, there are no comparable laws that bind museums to act according to the ICOM and AAM ethical codes. Unless the aspects of these codes are absorbed into existing non-profit laws under which most museums are subject to, I don’t see the majority of institutions voluntarily restructuring their systems to comply with the codes. Museum ethics ultimately comes down to who is running the museum day-to-day and those people are hindered by human nature, as Dr. Muscarella pointed out on our tour. Perhaps the field would benefit from more people like Dr. Muscarella revealing the awful truth behind collections before some major changes to collection practices and labeling/record keeping will finally come to fruition.

  12. Seung-Eun, NYU October 26, 2008 at 11:58 pm #

    As a citizen Korea, the country where had colonial history before, I have been concerned about the illicit cultural property trade for a long time. Korea has been through numerous wars, Japanese colonization, and cold war throughout its history, and an enormous number of national treasures were damaged or stolen through the illegal exportation of cultural properties. Currently, there are approximately 75,000 pieces of cultural property kept in other nations, including 34,000 in Japan, 15,000 in the United States, 6,000 in the United Kingdom, and 3,500 in Russia.
    I have seen numerous cases related with the illicit cultural property trade and Museum, and many arguments(almost “war”) regarding this issue are still on going between Korea and acquisitive nations. From my experience, I doubt the efficacy of AAM or ICOM ethical guidelines. For example, ICOM Ethical guidelines 2006 says “Cultural Objects From an Occupied Country Museums should abstain from purchasing or acquiring cultural objects from an occupied territory and respect fully all laws and conventions that regulate the import, export and transfer of cultural or natural materials.”(2006: 6.4) I wonder if there is any elements of enforceability. Not only ethical guidelines, but also conventions are not compulsive, but highly recommended. Origin country should have relied on morality of acquisitive country or museum, rather than international law or convention in case of conflict regarding illicit trade. Whenever this issue is brought up, international law or convention are not applicable. That’s because there are conflict between the acquisitive nation’s domestic policies and international political backgrounds, and that is one of the main excuses that acquisitive nations make. For this reason, origin county has emphasized morality rather than legality to solve this problem.

  13. Pilar NYU October 27, 2008 at 10:07 am #

    Obviously, it cannot be asserted that ethical guidelines are fully effective, if they were, case studies as those presented by Oscar Muscarella during the visit would not exist.
    Educating the public on illicit trade would imply a lower demand on these items, for doing that, I agree with Rachel (above) on making accessible the code of ethics of the museum through the website; mostly everyone has included a note on the labeling of pieces in a way that info on provenience is stated. Other suggestions for a museum to follow are:
    •To include a note on the code of ethics of the museum in the highlights tours by volunteers.
    •To include the information on provenience in the audioguides.
    •To organize seminars on responsible collecting.
    However, further the education of the public, a stricter enforcement of the law that would prevent private collectors to gain access to looted objects is necessary, no matter how well educated collectors are on the unethical character of looting and plundering.
    Lastly, giving more visibility shameful activities of illicit trade by both collectors and museums in the international arena through the public channels (ICOM’s website, ICOMS’s red lists, AAM’s website, etc.) would help reducing its market.

  14. Amy, NYU October 27, 2008 at 10:51 am #

    I feel that all previous statements have brought up relevant points about the display and acquisition of illicitly traded and undocumented objects. There is one point that I think needs further discussion. We keep stating that it is a museums duty or obligation to participate in the active trade of these items, but we need to examine who is behind the “museum” moniker. The board of trustees may be the ones who need to be educated about AAM’s and ICOM’s Code of Ethics. In most cases, it is not the general public, but members of these boards and their friends, who are the collectors and perpetuators of illicit trade. In educating the public about these practices, museums need to call on the public for action to pressure higher museum officials/members to participate in the recognition and repatriation of illicitly traded objects as well as the trade itself.

  15. Ipek, NYU November 2, 2008 at 11:08 pm #

    Museums are considered to provide visitors with knowledge, aesthetics, and higher artistic, cultural and intellectual material and experience. However, when it comes to issues of ethics and transparency, I believe, they still have to improve themselves in multiple ways. As they are spaces and institutions of authority, we, the museum visitors, do not question their reliability or moral values that often. When we enter a museum, we tend to ‘believe’ or ‘accept’ what it has to convey through its texts, exhibition narrative, modes of display, catalogues and website. In my opinion, change in public awareness and understanding of museums is required, as well as change in museum practice it self. Critical thinking and asking questions about the activities of these institutions could influence the museum professionals, curators and exhibition designers to enhance transparency and accessibility in museum world.
    As visitors are not provided with sufficient information on the internal workings of museums, exhibition-making and acquisition-deaccession processes, and object’s story starting from its original context to the museum, in its labels, texts, and other visual material, people are not knowledgeable on actual stories of looting, illicit plunder and trade of world cultural heritage, in which archeologists, collectors, art dealers, curators and museum staff are also involved. Media is one of the limited sources that presents partial and subjective view on cases of looting, illicit export and import of objects and art works. However, museums themselves should take responsibility to provide better information on these issues, instead of simply expecting visitors only to appreciate the art works or artifacts themselves, the beauty in them, and exhibitions and other museum activities.
    Working in collaboration with universities and their history, archeology, art history and social sciences departments, museums should provide visitors information based on academic research. Collections should be revised according to recent academic research as well as technological developments. This way, both the content of the exhibit, and the modes of display and organization will parallel the contemporary standards to better communicate with viewers. Clearly giving accession information (date, person or institution the object previously belonged to..) on the labels, they should demonstrate transparency, and respect and trust towards public. Making public announcements about accession-deaccession processes should be another responsibility of museums in order to challenge the previous identities of these institutions as authoritative and opaque institutions, instead, they could become more open, accessible, visitor-oriented and democratic spaces. Rethinking and reconsidering themselves critically, museums can go beyond reaffirming their prestige and authority, and they can support ethical practice in arts and culture sphere as a whole.

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