The statue of Sekhemka sold at auction last month for £15.8m. Image: Christie's

MA board to consider new sanctions following Northampton sale

Geraldine Kendall, 11.08.2014
Greater deterrent needed for unethical disposals, says Fleming
The Museums Association’s (MA) board may consider introducing new sanctions that would act as a deterrent to museums considering unethical financially-motivated disposal, prompted by the £15.8m sale last month of the ancient Egyptian Sekhemka statue by Northampton Borough Council.

David Fleming, head of the MA’s ethics committee and director of National Museums Liverpool, said he intended to raise the issue at the MA's next board meeting on 18 September. 

The key disciplinary action available to the board at present is to expel and bar museums that breach the code of ethics from membership of the MA. Three local authorities – Croydon, Bury and Derbyshire – have been barred from membership in the past 25 years.

But Fleming said: “The MA board will be reviewing what kind of sanctions are available to it. Up until now the only sanction has been to withdraw membership, but we are asking whether that is a good enough deterrent because it ends up punishing museum staff [who are not usually responsible for the sale].

“I’d like to see if there is something else that could be said or done and I’ll be seeking people’s views on what might be appropriate. The MA does need to take a firmer line. What we’re talking about is a deterrent to prevent wholesale sell-offs of collections.”

The ethics committee warned Northampton in advance of the auction last month that the MA did not endorse the disposal. The committee said that the council had not demonstrated that the sale was a last resort after other funding sources had been explored.

The MA has also learned that the council received a number of offers that would have enabled the Sekhemka sculpture to go back on public display after it was placed in storage in 2010 over security fears.

 In 2012, NML entered negotiations to borrow and display the statue in Liverpool. The Friends of Northampton Museums also offered to buy a £8,000 secure display case that would have enabled the artefact to go back on display at Northampton Museum. The council did not proceed with either offer.

Fleming said: “We’re not quite sure of Northampton’s full justification for the sale. If the fact that the object was in store is a justifying factor, that’s where this issue comes into play. It was eminently possible for that item to be on display to the public.”

The ethics committee is due to rule on whether the council should face disciplinary action at its next meeting in September.

Northampton council’s museums service has already been stripped of its Arts Council England Accreditation.

Comments

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Janet Ulph
MA Member
Professor, University of Leicester
12.11.2014, 19:59
I came in as an outsider, a lawyer, to consider Part 6 of the Code of Ethics and how it applied to financially motivated sales. Working as part of a team (and thanks also to comments on this website!), we created extra guidance in Appendix 4 of the Disposal Toolkit. Appendix 4 is intended to guide museums through the process so that they could demonstrate that they had behaved responsibly.
I was startled by Judith's comment that:
"Disposal of objects needs much greater clarification if it is not currently clear that the sale of Sekhemka was unethical."
I presume that Judith means that no-one should doubt that the sale was unethical!
I am currently working on guidance on curatorially motivated disposals and orphan collections (thanks to AHRC funding). However, I thought that my work was done on financially motivated sales and that it was abundantly clear that the sale of the Sekhemka statue did NOT comply with the requirements in the Code of Ethics. As far as I am aware, there was no evidence that it was a sale of last resort. I also saw no evidence of proper consultation.
However, if anyone considers that more clarification of financially motivated sales is needed, please e-mail me at ju13@le.ac.uk!
14.08.2014, 16:38
Disposal of objects needs much greater clarification if it is not currently clear that the sale of Sekhemka was unethical. Northampton Museums does not have to have the grossly expensive extension to which the proceeds might be put: if the financial climate is not good enough to have sufficient staff to run the museum adequately, then it does not seem the right time to contemplate an extension. As an ex-member of our decimated museum service I do appreciate the need for some disposals, but certain areas should, surely, be outside this. In the case of Northampton perhaps the most vulnerable area is county material, collected when it functioned, de facto, as a county museum, eg Geology and Archaeology, both of which have obvious national significance, and as such should perhaps be subject for national rather than local debate. The Natural History collections which included specimens caught / killed within the county, and a rather special herbarium collection, have, I believe, already left the Museum. Returning to Sekhemka: to sell an object because of its value is surely the most despicable reason for doing so.

Anonymous
MA Member
14.08.2014, 11:40
I seem to recall that the Museums Journal has still included job advertisements for museums that have been barred from membership. Surely it should exclude any such possibility to these museums?
William Adams
MA Member
Head of Marketing, Museums Association
15.08.2014, 12:38
Dear Anonymous, looking back you are quite correct - eight years ago we took advertising from a barred museum. The membership bar was the only sanction. So we also accepted subscriptions, conference delegates and individual membership from staff at that museum too. Perhaps advertising, being more institutional, should be barred too. It is certainly something to consider in this review of sanctions. Thank you.
13.08.2014, 18:19
Since I already seem to be in David Fleming's bad books I will not comment on the "apparent" Interest on David's part BUT I will add the following: It is good that we now finally know that NML tried to acquire Sekhemka on long term loan from Northampton - why this information could not have been given to me in late 2012/early 2013 when I contacted all the major museums, including Liverpool, is beyond me; it is also good that the Friends of Northampton Museums & Art Gallery get a belated recognition of their generous offer of £8,000 towards a secure display cabinet. The more stones I and the Action Group turn over themore creepy crawlies seem to appear. Why is this ? Naively I thought that ACE and MA and ALL museums are in this TOGETHER ?! Or do we wish to see just the large museums intact with a lot of small trusts specialising in one thing or another living as long as their enthusiastic trustees have the heart to "fight" to keep it going and to apply for scarce funds. This is a debate we need to have NOW!
Anonymous
MA Member
12.08.2014, 18:44
Sadly, David Fleming doesn't seem clear whether it's the board or the Ethics Committee is responsible for deciding whether to take disciplinary action. Above it says the Ethics Committee will, but in a comment here http://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/01082014-ace-strips-northampton-accreditation, Fleming says the board will. And the MA's official disciplinary regulations seem to say something else entirely http://www.museumsassociation.org/about/12194

So is he making it up as he goes along. And surely if NML has been involved in the dispute then Fleming has a clear conflict if interest so he should immediately step aside from the issue and keep very quiet. Here we have one person who is a party to the dispute, the chair of the Ethics Committee and the MA's bice president.
Sharon Heal
MA Member
Head of Publications & Events, Museums Association
13.08.2014, 14:01
Dear Anonymous, the process is very clear: the ethics committee will review the actions of Northampton Borough Council against the guidance in the MA's code of ethics and will then rule whether it is in breach of the code of ethics. The committee will make a recommendation to the MA regarding disciplinary action. Assuming there is a case to be heard the council will be asked to send representatives to a disciplinary hearing where they will have an opportunity to state their case before a panel made up of three MA board members after which a ruling will be made. It is only right and proper that the democratically elected board of the MA will take a view on this.

Anonymous
MA Member
13.08.2014, 16:21
Thanks for that clarification; I was beginning to worry that David Fleming might see himself as the democratically elected head of everything! Could someone from the MA now comment on his apparent conflict of interest. As NML has been a party to the dispute he surely can't play a part in any decision making. And even if that was not the case then the chair of the ethics committee making the recommendation surely then shouldn't play any part at all in making the final decision as that would mean that the 'prosecutor' was also the 'judge'.

Perhaps in recent years the number of people making decisions in the MA has become rather too small, even if some of them are democratically elected?