Elephant in the room

Alistair Brown, 10.04.2018
How can museums help to stop the ivory trade?
At Easter, the government launched proposals for a new law to ban the ivory trade. Environmental groups have documented in recent years how the legal ivory trade in the UK is driving global demand not just for ivory antiques, but also for "fake" antiques made of illegal ivory coming from recently-killed elephants.

With African elephant numbers declining by 30% between 2007-14 due to poaching, environment secretary Michael Gove has taken up the environmentalists’ cause and, when his legislation is passed later this year, the ivory trade will be banned in the UK in all but a few areas.

In recent months, the debate on the terms of the ban has been a rather unsavoury spectacle, pitching antique dealers fearful of losing a source of income against wildlife protection groups determined to ban the ivory trade in full. But the proposals also raise questions about what museums should be doing to help stop the ivory trade – and what they should be doing with their ivory collections.

While the proposed ban relates only to the buying and selling of ivory items, and will have no impact on museums that simply hold and display elephant ivory, there is a possibility that the public mood, already hugely in favour of the ivory ban, will also swing against the display of ivory in any way that helps to give it "value", including in our museum displays.

If museums want to be ahead of the game on this and educate visitors about the cultural role that ivory has played in the past, perhaps we need to do a better job of explaining to audiences where ivory objects come from, and why we wouldn’t make them from the same material today.

Museums have led the way in highlighting other ecological issues, such as Manchester Museum’s recent Climate Control exhibition – so why not also think creatively about museum ivory?

However, it should be stressed that eliminating ivory from display is not the goal of the current proposals. In fact, the government acknowledges that there is a kind of "premier league" of ivory works in museums that should continue to be publicly accessible. As a result, all accredited museums are exempt from the ban and can continue to purchase and display worked ivory pieces.

But there is another exemption – for items of "outstandingly high artistic, cultural or historic significance" – which recognises that much of this "premier league" is in private hands and should continue to be traded in a licensed way.

That means more responsibility for museums, as it will be up to experts from museums to determine what should be included on the list. Wildlife groups will be watching closely to ensure that this does not become a loophole allowing business as usual.

Meanwhile, everything that isn’t on the list, or doesn’t meet the other two exemptions (a de minimis of 10% ivory content, and a musical instrument exemption) will not be tradable.

In fact, one of the only institutions that will be able to legally purchase the material is an accredited museum. And this means that there is a risk that, over time, museums could become a dumping ground for large numbers of unwanted ivory pieces, as families that are unable to sell ivory pieces turn to museums as the only place to get rid of them.

So our sector does have an important part to play in reducing ivory demand – but we need to work closely with government if this legislation is going to work for museums as well.