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AAA Committee on Ethics (CoE) Response to the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) Report on the Loan of Archaeological and Ancient Artworks.
In June 2004, the AAMD issued a “Report of the AAMD Task Force on the Acquisition of Archaeological Materials and Ancient Artworks” and in February 2006 issued its Guidelines for Incoming Loans. In March 2006 the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) released a response to the AAMD that identified serious inadequacies in their guidelines. We concur with and expand the AIA statement by recommending changes to the AAMD guidelines that would broaden the categories of cultural property that should be included in the guidelines and strengthen the recommendations for documenting provenance.
While the AAMD guidelines focus on antiquities and ancient art, we urge the expansion of cultural objects covered by the guidelines to include but not be limited to antiquities, artifacts from archaeological contexts, and works of art both archaeological and ethnographic. These categories encompass virtually any cultural object acquired from museums for exhibition, study, and curation. We argue that the acquisition of all of these materials should follow the highest ethical standards.
We strongly believe that the significance of a cultural object is always in its context of discovery, authenticity, and its chain of custody. Even the aesthetic significance of an object depends on context and authenticity; few would assert that an exact reproduction is as significant as the original, even if they are formally and aesthetically identical. For these reasons, we urge the AAMD to close a number of gaps in their guidelines in the documentation of the provenance, authenticity, and chain of custody of cultural materials:
1) We recommend that the AAMD provide a stronger statement on the responsibility of museums to document the provenance of cultural materials considered for acquisition. Museums must go beyond the letter of the law in establishing provenance and in documenting and making public the complete chain of ownership back to the original context of discovery or creation. Furthermore, museums must be explicit in documenting gaps in the provenance and chain of custody of cultural materials. By making gaps explicit, museums facilitate further investigations into the provenance of cultural objects by scholars whose research may help to close these gaps.
2) We urge the AAMD to follow the International Council of Museums (ICOM) Code of Ethics (2001) by not only requiring that acquisitions comply with U.S. laws, but also comply with the laws of the country of origin and all intermediary countries through which cultural materials have been transferred.
3) We believe that looters and unethical dealers and other intermediaries can still profit from unethically and illegally acquired objects even if that object has been outside its country of origin for the AAMD recommended period of 10 years. We therefore urge the AAMD to drop this recommendation and focus attention on documenting provenance and chains of custody.
The rarity, scholarly importance or aesthetic value of cultural objects cannot offset the damage done by rewarding, either directly or indirectly, the acquisition and trade of undocumented cultural objects. We urge the AAMD to expand their categories of protected objects and close the loopholes in provenance documentation in their guidelines.