I’ve been working in and around museums for a while now, and for me a fascinating aspect of how museums function is how much is hidden. Let’s face it, museums hold many secrets. Sometimes secrets they mean to keep from “the public”; other secrets are the behind-the-scenes activities that aren’t on view.
The work of registration departments falls into the latter type of secrets. In larger museums, the registration department is underground with easy access to the loading dock, storage, and freight elevator. One person I know who works in a museum registration department likes to tell people that the registration department is responsible for all information concerning every object in the museum’s collection as well as objects on loan.
All information includes the physical condition of the object (sometimes including a report from a conservator), its size and medium, its inventory number (two distinct inventory numbers), the precise location of the object (an alphanumeric code that may indicate a drawer of a cabinet in a particular aisle of a collection in the museum’s storage cavernous vault), the name of donor and the terms of the gift (or the name of the fund used to purchase an item), biographical information about the donor, shipping receipts, photographs, copies of publications, and, perhaps, a history of the object’s ownership. You get the picture.
I have a particular preoccupation with this last detail– the history of the object’s ownership, its provenance. An object’s provenance record is a list, beginning in the present and working back in time, of who has owned the object at any given time and how it passed from owner to owner.
If you’ve heard of provenance research, it has probably been in the context of Nazi-era provenance which seeks to identify works that were looted or obtained illicitly during the Second World War. A goal, if not the goal, of this research is to identify the rightful owner of the object, to determine who has clear title to it. Click here for just one museum’s policy on Nazi-era provenance.
A second area of provenance research is archaeological materials. This research does not have the moral urgency of the World War II-era provenance but nonetheless it should occupy an important place in museums with archaeological collections.
In recent years, many museums have been in the news about works in their collection to which other nations lay claim. Because it’s relatively easy to find information about these claims, I thought I would give the most stripped-down accounting of the rules and regulations meant to prevent illegal trade in cultural property. (You have to read to the end to learn why this is so important.)
The rules and what they say:
1. The 1970 UNESCO Convention seeks to prevent and prohibit trade in cultural property (including archaeological materials) that was illegally exported after 1970 or that was not outside the country where it was discovered prior to 1970.
2. In 2008 both the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Association of Museums (AAM) published guidelines for museums to follow so that they do not acquire anything that violates the UNESCO convention. Download AAMD 2008 Report; or read AAM guidelines online.
What’s at stake?
To be in compliance with UNESCO and the AAMD and AAM guidelines? Yes, but there’s more than the legal compliance to this story. The AAMD and AAM argue that if museums do not participate in the illegal trade of materials then there will be no market for those materials. Because I have a particular interest in most things archaeological, I want to know as much as possible about every archaeological object. The context of where an object was found can give us that information. when objects are part of the illegal market, information is lost.
If you want to know the latest news about threats to the world’s cultural heritage, there’s no better place to go to than SAFE, Saving Antiquities For Everyone. Read about threat’s to Greece’s archaeological heritage here.