July 14, 2006

The Conservation and Deaccessioning of The Ancient World

Posted at 12:53 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

Minerva looks at the benefits of allowing museums to more easily deaccession items in their collections.
The Anti-deaccessioning clauses in the British Museum Act are one of the key arguments which is regularly given by the British Museum as to why the Elgin Marbles can not be returned.


The Conservation and Deaccessioning of The Ancient World

As Minerva goes to press, Laura Novak of The New York Times (29 March) has highlighted the Getty Conservation Institute at the Getty Villa in Malibu and its great strides worldwide in training conservators to conform to international standards. According to Timothy P. Whalen, the director of the Institute, the Getty spent $35 million in 2004 in its global conservation programmes, much more than any other American organisation. As terrifically responsible as this investment clearly is in trying to preserve surviving ancient heritage, either on archaeological sites or in museums, there is no escaping the reality that the modern predicament is akin to fighting forest fires. The quantity of sites being excavated each year, and the hundreds of thousands of artefacts unearthed annually, are mind-boggling. There is no conceivable way that all of these sites can be properly conserved and protected or their finds recorded and safely stored in proper facilities for future generations.

In a 2005 report partly financed by the Getty Foundation, the conservation group Heritage Preservation estimated that some 4.8 billion artefacts are on display or stored in American institutions. Of these, the report accentuated that about 190 million items are in need of ‘specific preservation attention’. But of the 31,000 institutions that participated in the survey, only 20% employed full-time conservators. No simple solution to this Sisyphean task exists, yet meanwhile millions of objects in museum stores worldwide are suffering neglect, with countless numbers slowly disintegrating (see Minerva, July/August 2004, p. 2).

Several courses of action could alleviate this problem of over abundance. First, the object-rich museums, especially in source countries, should loan a significant number of objects to the thousands of museums and teaching institutions across the world that lack representation of the aesthetic manifestations of ancient civilisations. Second, they could be sold to the patrons and benefactors of institutions, who could later donate them and in the process receive tax benefits. Finally, they could be auctioned so that collectors and dealers could acquire objects with good provenance, a requirement that has become increasingly important in recent years, especially for several museums (see pp. 45-47).

This deaccessioning of cultural material would greatly benefit museums, freeing up substantial funding for conservation, cataloguing, photography, and publication, and especially for safeguarding sites. Once excavated objects are photographed and recorded, duplicate pieces, or lesser objects with no or minimal historical or artistic value, could be sold to generate revenue for sorely needed projects.

The problem of protecting sites is serious, especially in a country like Iraq where about 10,000 sites only have a few hundred individuals to guard them. The problem of site protection in Italy, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries has reached an unmanageable level. Only Egypt appears to have stemmed this problem in recent years under the active administration of Dr Zahi Hawass, who has extracted increasingly larger amounts of money from the government for this purpose. He has also been able to convince them to build smaller provincial and local museums and thus bring many fine objects out from storage. Unfortunately, this is not the case in several Mediterranean countries, which are often lax in the protection of their ancient heritage and, indeed, have often cut down the funds available for cultural activities.

Most archaeologists guard their finds zealously and will not allow others to study or publish them. Thus they languish, often rotting away, in the basements of museums, sometimes for generations. When they are finally published, very few ever see the light of day. As an example, the senior registrar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has confirmed that only 1% of the estimated 750,000 to one million objects are exhibited at any one time, with huge numbers unrecorded, boxed up, and unavailable for research. Their databases now hold some 360,000 individually catalogued items. Of what use are most of them to scholars now?

The writer apologises if this sounds repetitious to our readers, but these problems are of great concern to him. Evidence not only his many articles and editorials on the subject in Minerva, but also his several addresses over the past 14 years pertaining to the antiquity trade, ethics of collecting, conservation, and site protection to such distinguished organisations as UNIDROIT, the International Congress of Classical Archaeology, and the UK Institute for Conservation. He hopes that it has not all fallen on deaf ears.

Jerome M. Eisenberg, Ph.D.

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