How museums get their stuff: should we care?


London has a well-deserved reputation for being the home of many of the world’s best museums. Wander through the grand old buildings that are home to the Natural History, the Victoria and Albert or the British Museums and you can admire some of the finest collections of antiquities and rare objects.

Yet as we look closely at those priceless items and wonder about their origins, our 21st century moral compass might just begin to wobble with uncertainty. Those precious jewels from India: did we pay a fair price for them? How about those African ceremonial altars: what was the story behind their removal from their home soil? (No need to answer these questions) And what about those intricate ivory carvings: do we look at them with admiration or with anger and sadness?

Visit almost any collection of objects and curios and the question of ethics springs up. Many of the world’s great museums have been built up through a combination of meticulous research, careful acquisition and a procurement policy (at least in the early days) that could be written on the back of a rare Chinese postage stamp.

And yet we still stop to look. In recent visits to several of London’s big museums we’ve made our way through crowds of children as they stared intently at collections of rare and extinct animals or at unusual artifacts retrieved from another time and another place. There is little doubt that by giving public access to such objects of interest, we inspire the next generation of doctors, vets, conservationists and environmentalists. By showing real examples of the diversity of the human race and the natural world, curious minds are nurtured and grow to create the thinkers and doers in the following decades.

So can the end ever justify the means? Should we keep animals in captivity merely to help educate both children and adults about the importance of looking after our planet and its inhabitants? Can the the shooting and stuffing of a rare bird in a previous century be considered a positive action thanks to the joy and curiosity it has inspired from behind a glass panel in a museum?

I think back to my business school classes and the concept of a sunk cost. Perhaps the moral price of acquiring a ceremonial mask or an elephant’s tusk has long been paid and there’s no point us getting worked up about it. We might as well enjoy it; the more we gain from its current state as a museum exhibit, the more we help balance the ethical equation.

But that argument doesn’t sit easily for me. I’ll keep going to visit museums and zoos and to look at collections with a questionable history. My natural curiosity is enough to take me to these places, even if I do wander around with a series of questions going round in my head that are rarely answered on the interpretive boards.

A final thought on this: barring some form of apocalypse, museums will exist in some form of other in another 200 years. They will show curious folks how life was back in the primitive days at the start of the millennium. I wonder what practices from today’s world will be frowned upon and considered unenlightened by the people of 2212.


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Freelance travel writer

8 Responses to “How museums get their stuff: should we care?”

  1. Nice piece. Very hard to reconcile the joys of the BM with the ‘imperial war chest, with lecture theatres’ view. Two related things I’d add:

    1 – The best institutions can also offer world-class preservation and restoration (though that has, in certain cases, allowed them to simply deflect arguments about repatriation by snapping “NO! You’ll only ruin it!”).

    2 – If return isn’t possible, or simply isn’t on the table, we can still argue museums should repay the moral cost of their acquisitions through active lending policies, granting access to researchers etc.. A good lending policy can help institutions elsewhere in the world improve their capacity for handling and storing certain pieces through sharing of expertise and tech.

    February 21, 2012 at 12:41 pm
  2. Yen #

    Great article.
    I have learned that many relics and antiques were looted from China by the British and French during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Chinese museums have since been urging these countries to return these properties back to them. Not sure if they have yet.

    February 22, 2012 at 6:05 am
  3. I was talking to an amateur egyptologist only the other day, and she thought most of the stuff in the British Museum and Highclere was appropriated on the ‘finders keepers’ principle. She argued that, with the techniques and materials available nowadays, authentic replicas could be made, and most of the stuff returned to Egypt.

    However, she had no argument with atrefacts freely presented to the museum as gifts.

    February 22, 2012 at 9:13 am
  4. Thanks for the great insights. Yen, I suspect the Chinese will have to wait a long time to get their loot back from the British – it will probably return when it’s tied to some trade deal or other. That’s the way these things often work… on second thoughts perhaps China has a better chance of getting its stuff back than Greece, India or any African state…
    I like the idea of active lending to other museums but I suspect the British are nervous that items displayed in their native territories might not return…

    February 23, 2012 at 3:59 pm
  5. Donna #

    There are no easy answers. Where will the things be best preserved? Where are they likely to be destroyed by political upheaval and war? I think those questions need to be asked as well.

    March 4, 2012 at 11:22 pm
  6. This is very well written and poses a very good question to almost everyone who has visited a museum at least once.

    Museums are connected to a country’s history and I think it’s better that each country gets to keep their own relics, even if the diggers were from another nation. I learned in our history class in college that a lot of Philippine relics are displayed in collections far from the Philippines which is why the museums here don’t have much.

    March 5, 2012 at 1:10 pm
  7. Unisse and Donna – many thanks for adding your valuable thoughts to the discussion. You both make great points and in these two positions we find the strongest arguments: should precious artefacts stay where they originated or where they are considered to be more securely preserved? Historians (and professional looters) have argued over this for centuries and continue to do so.

    March 6, 2012 at 5:19 pm
  8. I really enjoyed this perspective. Do museums certify their finds are “Fair Trade”?

    March 14, 2012 at 11:52 pm