Fighting unethical sale

Alistair Brown, 08.04.2015
The thinking behind the sector's joint statement on unethical sale
Over the course of this winter, we’ve held a series of meetings with other museum sector bodies to discuss the growing number of museums that are being asked to sell items from their collections.

It became clear from these conversations that the Museums Association (MA) was far from alone in fearing that the high profile unethical sales by Croydon Council in 2013 and Northampton Borough Council in 2014 could be a sign of things to come.

Many museum professionals feel under pressure as a result of the tactics that are being used to sell off collections. Some are being asked to place a financial value on their collections so that they can be shown on the balance sheets, setting them up for eventual sale.

In other cases, museum governing bodies are moving directly to sale of items from collections. And it’s an increasingly common phenomenon – our Cuts Survey 2014 shows that one in ten museums considered selling items last year.

It was these factors that led us to the idea of a joint statement to re-affirm the sector’s position on unethical sale from museum collections, which we published at the end of March (and which has had widespread coverage).

I think this is a really important document. For the first time ever, ten museum sector bodies from across the UK have signed a statement that sets out a shared approach to unethical sale.

The list of signatories – the MA, Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council England, the Art Fund, the National Museum Directors Council, Association of Independent Museums, Museums Galleries Scotland, Northern Ireland Museums Council, the National Archives and the Welsh Museums Federation – is a pretty good who’s who of sector bodies.

The statement shows that museum collections matter – and that we will work together as a sector to protect them.

I think there is tremendous strength in publicly re-stating the idea that museum collections are cultural, rather than financial, assets, and that they should be used for the public good, not sold.

And of course, there’s no better time to be showing a united front across the museums sector than in the run-up to next month’s election.

In all likelihood, public sector cuts are likely to continue the pressure on collections, so we need to tell politicians and the public why our collections are important, and why museums can be trusted to look after them for this generation and the next.


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23.04.2015, 13:27
Well, well, as the Save Sekhemka Action Group has stated in its recent press statement the document on ethical sales signed by all the museum bodies in the UK was very welcome but much too late in the case of Sekhemka. I sort of agree with the Anonymous comment that small as well as large museums need to check out their collections for dross and either sell or return to donor - the trouble is LAs are rarely open to these actions and just want cash in their hands. Better communications between museums is a must and I do appreciate what the MA does here so listen to Anonymous.
When it comes to export bans as in the Sekhekma case ( why so LATE in the day? The museum world knew about it and debated it since late 2012 !) the Action Group is now calling for a NEW approach: when artefacts are sold at auction to unknown overseas buyers then we = everybody in the museums world should pressurise the great and the good into opening negotiations with the buyer to LEND the item long term to a major British museum where it will be on display and properly looked after. We should NOT fundraise in order to buy it back! Let's not forget that in the case of Croydon and Northampton the items were in public ownership in public collections and public money - even if raised privately - should NOT be used to buy these items!
I sincerely hope that all the great and the good will show their mettle this time and not be COWARDS!
22.04.2015, 21:22
I entirely agree that museum collections should not be seen as financial assets. They are and should remain cultural assets accessible to all citizens at a very modest cost. One way of avoiding or delaying the wholesale privatisation of the nation's cultural treasures, which is what unethical sale boils down to, would be to ask all museums to have a look at their collections to identify forgotten, surplus and irrecoverable and unusable archives and stocks, assess them for cultural value and sell off or return to donors, the least valuable, the culturally unimportant, or duplicate (maybe only triplicate) artefacts. I worked for many years as a volunteer at a small local museum and was shocked to see the waste of space, time and effort expended on unwanted items that added nothing to the story that the Museum was trying to project. Some, of course, were accessioned with covenants and verbal assurances; some on permanent loan, but many were simply accepted as gifts without thought for their cultural value to the museum; often out of politeness or a wish not to offend the donor. Such items should be sold off after consulting the donor; or returned to the donor. This must, of course be undertaken by an individual or team with social consciences; not museum accountants.