Just this week, New York Times featured an article about the Cleveland Museum of Art, which readies to unveil 35,000 square feet of new gallery space and is willing to invest in inventory with questionable provenance to showcase. For our digest of the article please read “A Question of Standards.” Is the Cleveland Museum of Art advocating a relapse in responsible curating and collecting, or is it upholding the mission of public education and museum growth within the standards outlined by the American Association of Museums (AAM)? Namely, AAM expects museums to “rigorously research the provenance of an object prior to acquisition and make a concerted effort to obtain accurate written documentation with respect to the history of the object, including export and import documents.” In this case, Cleveland seems to have done some provenance research and made some effort to obtain written documentation, but then what? If information dating back to 1970 is not available, as the museum alleges, are the objects rendered permanently tainted and out of reach of the American institutions? or, should they be purchased, insured and displayed until the missing information surfaces and forces the museum to hand over the object to its rightful owner? That time may never come, or research may catch up to the museum and force deaccessioning sooner rather than later.
Undoubtedly, Cleveland’s decisions to purchase the marble bust of Drusus Minor and the Mayan vessel are bold and provocative — a gamble. No challenger emerged yet with standing and evidence of violation if international law.
Lyndel V. Prott, “Unesco and Unidroit: A Partnership against Trafficking of Cultural Objects,” 1 Unif. L. Rev. 1 (1996) 59-71;
Lyndell V. Prott, “International Control of Illicit Movement on the Cultural Heritage: The 1970 UNESCO Convention and Some Possible Alternatives,” 10 Syracuse J. Int’l L. & Com. 333 (1983).