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Museum Ethics Q & A: Questionable Provenance

Q: Should museums treat recently created objects with questionable provenance any differently than they do older objects with questionable provenance?

Submitted by Jennine Schweighardt, Graduate Assistant, Institute of Museum Ethics, student, M.A. Program in Museum

A: Morris Museum Director Steven Miller says: In a word ­ No. Legal or perceived problems of ownership, origin, and/or use of objects seen in museums can entangle museums regardless of the age of the object. In most cases (all?), I cannot think of objects that have a start date, shelf life, or expiration date that automatically takes them out of the political, cultural, and by association or fact, the legal arena. Controversy can swirl around a recently created object as easily as it can around an anciently created object. The context of the museum use of recently created objects probably negates any concerns about provenance. I am thinking of art, craft, decorative arts, or similarly generated pieces. These things are so new that in most cases the correct owner, place of origin, or maker is usually known with enough certainty as to make it a non-issue. For that reason I suspect museums don¹t even think about provenance. To paraphrase an old saying, ignorance of the law is no reason to ignore possible infractions and perhaps museums should be more formally diligent regarding the provenance of recently created objects.

Obviously if there is a question of provenance about an item of recent manufacture, and museums are aware of this, they need to tread cautiously regarding if or how they use such an object. I would be inclined to avoid any entanglements and decline to exhibit, acquire, reproduce, or feature in some other way, the object in question. However, I also recognize that problems can erupt after a museum has already put something on exhibit or acquired it or featured it in another capacity. A recent situation at a museum that will remain anonymous related to Rock and Roll memorabilia. A company that specializes in the sale of such materials rented the public entry of a museum to exhibit and sell memorabilia for a weekend. The director of the museum received an e-mail accusing the company of selling a couple of fraudulent items and chastising the museum for being complicit in the fraud. Should the museum rent to the company again, it will require that all items being sold be independently vetted for authenticity.

Steven Miller, Director, Morris Museum, Morristown, New Jersey, Adjunct Faculty, MA Program in Museum Professions, Seton Hall University

A: UBC Museum of Anthropology Director Anthony Shelton comments: Clearly, it depends on the nature of ‘questionable provenance’. Whether this refers to ownership, non-compliance with export protocols or dubious origins. In the case of the first two, regardless of whether the artifact is new or old, appropriate laws and UNESCO treaty agreements must be complied with. In the case of dubious origin, it needs be ascertained whether this implies uncertainty over ownership and export, in which case the same precautions need to be taken as in the first two categories. With ethnographic items, it may be the case that makers of ritual and ceremonial material are the same that produce goods for the external market. Under such circumstances difficulties can easily arise as to the status of the item. This becomes particularly acute with material derived from countries such as Nigeria which have blanket restrictions on religious and ritual objects regardless of their age and use. Caution is best exercised whenever doubt exists.

Anthony Shelton, Director, Museum of Anthropology, Professor of Anthropology, Adjunct Professor of Art History, the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.


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