Janet Ulph, The Sale of Items in Museum Collections - 9 May 2012, Brown Bag

Legal minefield but ethical necessity, this Brown Bag session centred around the hot topic of disposal in museums, particularly the sale of collections within the context of sustainability.  At a time when storage space is at a premium, when museums have more and more in their stores that has simply never been displayed, when many museums find themselves struggling to keep afloat financially, and when there is a plethora of stories in which museums have attempted to dispose of elements of their collections in controversial ways, often with a media frenzy, this presentation was very timely.

Janet Ulph is Professor of Commercial Law at the University of Leicester.  She is currently undertaking an AHRC fellowship for the Museums Association looking into exactly this area, branching away from her most recent legal research into the illicit trade in cultural property.  It is significant that Janet comes from a legal background, rather than a museum ethics one.  As she herself admits: 'I knew nothing about this area before I began work on this project'.

Of central important to Janet's thinking is what she called the 'dual nature of objects'.  Objects have both financial as well as cultural value.  And it is this duality that causes problems.  It is all too easy for those responsible for making policy decisions (e.g. local authorities) to see only the financial route.  If a Lowry painting can be sold for millions in order to keep social services going for the foreseeable future, then surely it is prudent to sell the painting?  What Janet is trying to do however, is convince (or remind) these authorities that museums are 'stewards' for the objects within their care on behalf of their communities.

Her research has involved a detailed trawl through legal aspects of this topic, found within both laws around trusteeship, as well as charities law, and acts such as the British Museum Act of 1963 and the Museums and Galleries Act of 1992.  Yet these are restrictive and filled with constraint, rather than the perhaps more permissive thinking that has come not through law, but through codes of ethics.  The Museums Association already has a Disposals Toolkit, and because of time constraints, the main output for Janet's fellowship is a new toolkit of 'Due Diligence Guidelines', to be published later this month (following ACE/DCMS approval) which builds upon the work on disposals and will enhance the current MA Code of Ethics (also including governance guidelines).

Of course, there will always be questions and discrepancies when interpreting and defining terms: what makes a 'curatorially motivated' disposal?  What is a curatorially motivated disposal?  What is due diligence?  What is value?  What is a cultural object?  What is public benefit?  What is risk? There will also be logistical challenges around bureaucracy and resources: who will do this work? It needs to be something embraced by the entire organisation.  And ironically by the time all the paperwork and stages are completed in order to be granted the 'go ahead' to dispose of collections, then maybe museums will have uncovered hidden object stories and potential and no long want to get rid of them.  And of course, the question at the heart of the debate: what is the purpose of this particular museum?

Yet despite the potential for blurriness, it is legal clarity that is sought, and these ensuing guidelines should provide a vital port of call, and step by step tools for museums trying to manage risk and decide how best to ensure their collections are benefitting the public.


Kerri said…
Thanks for the links to those existing acts and toolkits. I'm curious to see what comes from this new research. Disposal is a never ending problem!

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