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Will the AAMD’s Newly Updated Guidelines Lead to Substantial Change in Museum Collecting Practices?

In late January, the Association of Art Museum Directors (the AAMD) announced that it was publishing a revision to its “Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art,” following its mid-winter meeting in Kansas City, Missouri. The AAMD had not changed these guidelines since 2008, and many museums, dealers, archaeologists, and scholars alike eagerly awaited the updates. The AAMD represents 217 art museum directors in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Several new innovations have been introduced. The most significant updates revolve around the AAMD’s Object Registry. This registry was created for museums to post information on acquisitions of selected works of archaeological and ancient art that are lacking in complete provenance after 1970. In 2008, AAMD wrote guidelines advising museums that they should generally not acquire a work unless clear proof exists that the object was outside the United States prior to 1970 or that it was legally exported from another country after 1970 (that year is significant because UNESCO ratified a landmark convention prohibiting traffic in illicit antiquities). Since 2008, many museums have listed information about antiquities they have acquired that do not meet the 1970 standard on the Object Registry, but the guidelines were not clearly delineated. The AAMD has clarified rules regarding this registry: AAMD members must now publish all provenance information that the museum has regarding these objects, as well as specific details about how the acquisition meets the standards of the guidelines. Also significantly, the AAMD’s Code of Ethics has been amended to state that posting to the Registry is now a mandatory requirement. Failure to adhere to this provision subjects a museum director to “reprimand, suspension, or expulsion” from AAMD. The guidelines provide additional detail about the considerations to be taken into account when deciding whether to acquire a work that is either archaeological material or ancient art. And finally, the guidelines also address handling of promised gifts and estate plans made before the 2008 report was issued. The revised guidelines state that gifts promised and bequests made prior to 2008 can be accepted, provided they are also posted to the Object Registry when accessioned into a museum’s collection.

The reactions in the art world have been mixed, with both positive and negative feedback. Maxwell Anderson, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art and chairman of the AAMD’s taskforce on archaeological material and ancient art, said that the change makes the rule concerning publication on the Object Registry “into a sunshine law now… it gets the information out there, and if there are claimants then they can come forward.” David Franklin, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art and member of the AAMD’s taskforce, stated that the changes mean “more transparency” and will “make conversations with donors much more positive and proactive.” He acknowledged that returning more objects may be a consequence of the new guidelines, but that this was in keeping with the ethical obligations of museums. Laetitia La Follette, the vice-president for professional responsibilities at the Archaeological Institute of America, agreed that greater transparency about acquisitions is a good thing. About the object registry, she stated, “The justification field is really important.” [When] the Walters [Art Museum] acquired 300 objects from the Bourne Collection, it did not explain its justification for acquisition. Now museums will have to, so that’s an improvement.”

There has also been doubt expressed as to whether these amendments on paper will have a substantial effect in actual museum practice. Renowned scholar Patty Gerstenblith, chairman of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) and the director of the Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University, said, “What I want to see is the museums not acquiring these things in the first place. It remains to be seen how they enforce that part.” Lee Rosenbaum of CultureGrrl also expressed concerns over lack of enforceability of the new rules and stated overall that the new guidelines seem to provide new loopholes for museums to get around the 1970 rule (although she approved of the amendment to the Code of Ethics, making posting to the Object Registry mandatory).

Though there is certainly reason to be skeptical that these rules will not be effective without strong enforcement mechanisms, the AAMD appears to be taking a step in the right direction. A central problem in the art world is the traditional lack of transparency in transactions of museums, dealers, auction houses, and private collectors. Although it is not always possible to find a perfectly clean provenance record for antiquities and artworks that are thousands of years old, the lack of transparency is compounded by the fact that no centralized, international registry exists for artifacts and artworks with questionable provenance (although organizations like The Art Loss Register, Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal, and International Foundation for Art Research are attempting to fill this gap and provide more transparency). The requirement of online publication is an important one, as it will force museums to be more attentive to their acquisition processes, particularly if it is mandatory to publish information about them. Although illicit and questionable collecting practices will undoubtedly continue, the publication requirement on the Object Registry is a step in the right direction because it represents an attempt to make more public the dealings of institutions whose acquisition practices have traditionally been kept secret.

Sources: The Art Newspaper, The New York Times