Estelle Morris Says Museums Must Take Action Over Illicit Artefacts

by David Prudames | 19 November 2003
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shows Arts Minister Estelle Morris photogrpahed at the Gvernment Arts Collection.

Photo: Arts Minister Estelle Morris pictured earlier this year at the Government Art Collection. © 24 Hour Museum.

Estelle Morris has called on UK museums and galleries to respond to the growing problem of illicit trade in cultural property by drawing up firmer guidelines on how they collect artefacts.

The Arts Minister was speaking after a seminar for museum directors that discussed problems associated with collecting cultural objects from overseas and arrangements for looking after objects in the event of war.

"The international trade in illicit cultural artefacts is a growing problem," she said, "and one that was highlighted most recently by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq."

"The number of stolen, illicitly excavated or illegally exported items has increased considerably. The Government is determined to reduce this problem."

Shows a photograph of the outside of the Natural History Museum.

Photo: the Natural History Museum has been at the centre of debates about the holding of human remains in museum collections. © The Natural History Museum.

Last year the Government signed up to the UNESCO Convention on illicit trade in cultural property and has recently passed the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act.

But the Minister made the point that it would be better for museums themselves to tighten their own procedures and establish rigorous collection practices.

"It is vitally important that museums in this country should have robust procedures in place for assessing the legality of potential acquisitions and loans."

"Today’s seminar has brought museum directors together with the Government to consider how to develop practical guidance for museums to follow. We want the museums themselves to be responsible for developing such good practice guidance rather than our imposing it on them."

The debate over how to keep museums packed with collections that not only intrigue the public but also further our knowledge is increasingly becoming a high profile one.

Shows a photograph of a man handing over a sacred artefact, which is wrapped in a cloth to three Native Canadians.

Photo: earlier this year the Marischal Museum at the University of Aberdeen returned a headdress to its rightful Native Canadian owners. © John McKenzie McIntosh, University Of Aberdeen.

Recently a Government Working Group on human remains in museum collections recommended the establishment of a code of practice to ensure they are properly cared for and to deal with requests for their repatriation.

Earlier this year the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act passed through the House of Lords and will make it against the law to acquire, import or export illegally removed artefacts.

The Museums Association, which represents museums and galleries in this country, has established a code of ethics that calls on institutions to "acquire items honestly and responsibly and safeguard the long-term public interest in the collections."

However, the point is made that "museums must continue to collect or they fail in their duty to represent the past and the present to the future."

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