An ivory okinomo from Japan held by the Wellcome Collection

Accredited museums granted exemption from ivory ban

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 06.04.2018
Tough new legislation prohibits almost all ivory trade
Accredited museums and galleries will be granted an exemption in legislation announced this week that bans the trade of elephant ivory in almost all circumstances.

The UK government set out plans for legislation that will prohibit the sale and purchase of ivory items of any age, replacing a previous ban that allowed trade in antique objects made before 1947. The maximum penalty for breaching the ban will be an unlimited fine or up to five years in jail.

The new legislation proposes to exclude “commercial activities to, and between, museums which are accredited by Arts Council England, the Welsh government, Museums Galleries Scotland or the Northern Ireland Museums Council in the UK, or the International Council of Museums for museums outside the UK”.

The museum sector responded with concern last year when the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) first announced it was planning to tighten ivory trade legislation, with several museums saying a total ban could affect acquisitions, loans and touring exhibitions.

The Museums Association (MA), which had called for a museum exemption in its response to Defra’s consultation on the ban last December, welcomed the government’s revised proposals.

The MA’s policy officer Alistair Brown said: “The proposed legislation reflects quite a lot of what we submitted to the consultation. It’s really heartening to see that the MA’s point of view has been taken seriously by Defra. It’s good that the government has recognised that some items are highly valued by museums and that they should have a role in preserving items of historical importance.”

But Brown said that the ban could still have a number of implications for the museum sector, saying there was a “theoretical” question-mark around what would happen in cases where museums move in or out of Accreditation. He added that the issue was unlikely to crop up very often.

“We’re talking about trade in items – it isn’t about museums that hold ivory in their collections – so when you buy or sell you have to be Accredited at that point in time,” he said.

Brown also warned that museums could end up as repositories for ivory objects that cannot be sold elsewhere. “Do we end up with a slow stream of ivory offered to museum collections because there’s no other home for it? Will museums want it – and if not, what happens to it?” he said.

In addition to the exemption for museums, the legislation will allow private buyers to trade objects that are at least 100 years old and judged to be “the rarest and most important items of their type”. This could also have implications for the museum sector, said Brown, because of the government's suggestion that assessments be carried out by “specialist institutions such as the UK’s most prestigious museums”.

Brown called for greater clarity on how such an adjudication process would work and what resources would be made available to museums to enable them to act in that capacity.

The new legislation, which the government has billed as the toughest in the world, is intended to tackle elephant poaching and deter illegal ivory trade worldwide. The global elephant population has shrunk by almost a third in the past decade, with about 20,000 creatures slaughtered each year for their tusks.

Comments

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12.04.2018, 13:57
"assessments be carried out by “specialist institutions such as the UK’s most prestigious museums”. "

The ethical issues and potential pitfalls (not to mention workload) in this are huge.

I don't think that any accredited museum would want to be signing off ivory for private sale so I hope that they take that bit out.

I've got no problem with the museum sector advising on the practical application of the legislation but if the government or indeed sellers need experts to approve items they should seek it elsewhere.

It also raises questions about other traded biological materials so why the focus on only Elephant Ivory? What about the rest of the endangered life on earth? Does CITES cover everything else adequately?