Be vocal about your ethical responsibilities

Alice Stevenson, 01.11.2014
Egyptian antiquities have long attracted steep premiums at auction, but prices have never been higher. At stake are professional reputations, public faith in museums and, above all, Egypt’s heritage. But what can the museum community do?

For starters, we need to be more vocal about our ethical responsibilities as stewards of the past. Recently, the St Louis branch of the Archaeological Institute of America – against condemnation from the national office – instructed Bonhams to auction material excavated at Harageh a century ago.

It, like many organisations at that time, had contributed funds to the British School of Archaeology in Egypt. In return, it received artefacts on the condition they were bestowed to a public institution. In this spirit, these objects were presented to the St Louis Art Museum as a “permanent loan” in 1914-15.

In placing artefacts on the market, the society contravened that agreement and undermined the core of what archaeologists and museum professionals strive to do: promote meaningful engagements with the past. There seems to be a general acquiescence around such sales, however, even in the archaeological and museum professions.

But there are two important reasons why we should be deeply concerned. First, more than 100 public collections around the UK, and the same number around the world, benefited from the official partage system of artefacts legally excavated in Egypt between 1883 and the 1980s.

Given the financial climate, there is a fear that sales from museum collections will increasingly be considered, dispersing documented discoveries into the unregistered territory of private ownership.

More serious is the detrimental impact that sales have on Egypt. Auctions of legally exported and/or historically documented artefacts may seem far removed from the illicit looting of sites and smuggling of antiquities, but they are inextricably linked.

The high prices achieved at sales – such as the Christie’s auction of Northampton council’s Egyptian statue – encourage the criminal removal of ancient material from archaeological sites and storehouses throughout Egypt. Headline prices create demand.

Some museums may be tempted to purchase lots for their own collections, ensuring that they stay in the public domain. However, museum purchases legitimise the profit made by the selling institution, in a commercialisation of antiquity that is incompatible with most museum values.

Long-term legislative safeguards for documented archaeological collections held in the public arena may be worth seeking, but our immediate ethical responsibilities to denounce disreputable and cavalier attitudes to our shared past are clear.

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