American Museums

August 10th, 2021

Summary of the Main Ethical Code Researched

Among the ethical codes by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) version of 2013, Section 2 is the most applicable regulation in solving the ethical issues. Its sub-section 2.4 outlines how museums have to follow due diligence in acquiring collections by avoiding those with uncertain origins, illegal dealings, or unethically retrieved from the roots. In addition, it is reinforced by sub-section 2.21 that puts the responsibility of enabling knowledge and access to the pieces of art as a matter of public right. The balance between these provisions of the ethical codes provides a lasting solution to the issue of stolen and looted antiquities.

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Museums are currently facing major ethical dilemmas in dealing with looted and stolen collections. On the one hand, they seek to serve the interests of the public. This factor encompass being responsible in furthering knowledge about the historic items and the communities they relate to, improving access and research on the art works, and storing and preserving them appropriately for current and future generations. On the other hand, the museums have to observe responsibility, legitimacy, and transparency in the acquisitions of the collections, avoid illegal dealings in the collections, and ensure that the community to which they relate is involved and permits their use. In fact, the origin of the collections displayed in modern museums remains a primary area of concern, as emphasized by many historians, while failing to consider other stakeholders in the preservation of historic or souvenir pieces of art.

In the USA, just like the rest of the world, ethical conduct of modern museums is a major means of addressing the dilemma that these organizations face in their quest to preserve the historical items. Apart from national ethical codes, there are international regulations governing every aspect of museum operations, including the expected acquisitions, treatment, and display of collections. However, the process remains unclear how these ethical codes advise the stakeholders in the museum collection against looted or stolen items. In fact, Bounia explains that modern museums have the ability to circumvent the ethical codes without pronounced consequences. Therefore, the issues of looted or stolen arts may exist for a long time if drastic and proper action is not taken. Looted and stolen art still came into the American museums due to the lack of due diligence in following the ethical code on acquisition and inadequate provenance on their origin leads to failure to repatriate these items accordingly.

Dilemma and Applicable Ethical Standards and Codes on Looted and Stolen Arts

The most relevant ethical standards and codes for the looted and stolen collections is that of Section 2 subsection 2.4 of the 2013 revised version under acquisition of collection. It declares that any art work that is believed to have originated from another place through unlawful or unethical means, such as destruction of human heritage sites, plunder of natural homes of people and other forms of life, or protected sites for other historical uses sampled by archeological work. Indeed, the ICOM Ethical Code extends the requirement for proper acquisition to collection that have been determined to have illegal backgrounds, such as having been stolen from other entities, including governments. At the same time, the ethical code bans acquisition of collections with undeterminable origins or ascertainment of transparency in their dealings. Therefore, American museums have no excuse for acquiring illegal arts.

The heavy ethical burden is placed on the modern museums to determine soundness of pieces of collections they acquire through the provenance research. In addition, these institutions face equal responsibility of gathering, preservation, and public display of historical items under the same ICOM Ethical Codes. In particular, Section 4 subsection 4.1 of the 2013 version of the standards and ethical codes provide that museums are tasked with the role of collecting and displaying pieces of art for the purpose of furthering knowledge as well as awareness. However, in the same section 4 of the ethical code there is a sub-section 4.5 that warns the modern museums of displaying works that are not original or those whose places of origin cannot be ascertained as well as unknown. As a result, the modern museums remain confused on what ethical standard and follow in acquiring and displaying collections.

Standards for scrutiny and rejection of Nazi looted arts are also provided in the American Alliance of Museum (AAM) guidelines. Some of these principles require that the museums have in place internal policies for dealing ethically with objects deemed to have been sourced through the Nazi regime into America. In this way, the provenance guidelines involves determining the time of acquisitions of the pieces of art with those gotten around the Nazi reign recommended for further questioning and research. Each of the items selected for further provenance research, according to the AAM, should have a defined case-by-case approach rather than a collective method to ensure accuracy. Then, AAM also lays a specific standard for acquisition of potential Nazi-related art that may have been looted to go through the provenance exercise first. All these attempts are aimed at reducing the chances of modern American museums acquiring the collection that was looted during the Nazi regime. Thus, museums have to seek ethical means of repatriating those items which are already on exhibition.

Nevertheless, the roles of the museums include the need to provide universal access and display of collections that reflect human history. In fact, most of the pieces of art are only safe in the museum settings. Otherwise, even natural disasters would destroy most of them due to their material nature. Moreover, ICOM code of section 2 subsection 2.21 requires that modern museums protect the pieces of art from disasters of all kinds through physical means as well as policy guidelines. The burden to protect the arts and the requirement of due diligence in acquisition and display, thus, leave the organizations in a dilemma in which they may choose what to do on a case-by-case basis according to solely organizational culture, practices, and decisions. Therefore, there is a need to have a common understanding on the best approach to the ethical dilemma that modern museums face, especially those in the USA that have had uncountable cases of displaying looted and stolen arts.

Continued Cases of Nazi Looted Arts in American Museums

The most documented cases of the looted arts fall within those smuggled and ultimately sold during or soon after the Nazi regime. As Vincent records, these pieces of art include those by prominent artists, such as Picasso and van Gosh, which the Nazis took by force from the owners during the Holocaust. Thus, majority of their owners were Hebrews and Germans who were on the opposite side as Hitler’s forces and rule. The sad part, as Vincent puts it, is that minimal efforts are put to have most of these works repatriated. The most implicated American museum is the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) that holds up to 800 pieces which are assumed to have been originated from the Nazi era and locations determined as prevalently looted by the regime’s forces. The MoMA, for instance, holds The Poet Max Herrmann-Neisse shown in Figure 1 that has been claimed by the heir such as to the original artist, George Grosz, for over decades, including formal court cases lost the museum.

The Poet Max Herrmann-Neisse

Figure 1: The Poet Max Herrmann-Neisse by George Gozs. Source: MoMA.

In particular, the organization is citing reasons that allow it to keep the pieces of art rather than repatriate them. One of these reasons qualifies that they are legitimate by saying that the due diligence in their acquisition is beyond reasonable doubt. In fact, the director of the MoMA argues that the institution has carried all the relevant research and provenance procedures without any indication that the pieces of art actually originated from the Nazi era I spite of having been acquired after the regime’s reign. In other instances, the organization claims that no link is possible between the pieces of art and the Nazi rule. However, most artworks from the Eastern and Central Europe found their way into the USA as a means of reinforcing the economic capability of the Hitler’s government and helped finance the war. The number of missing pieces claimed to have been looted from the region is immense: Vincent puts it at over 650,000 pieces.

Other American museums have also identified that they have collections that are deemed to have been looted by the Nazi and auctioned in the country. For instance, Brooklyn Museum found about 200 pieces of art related to Nazi that is not yet been claimed officially. Also, Jewish Museum has had nearly 300 works that it acquired around or after the Nazi period, but with no claims placed yet. In contrast, Guggenheim Museum found that it holds over 300 pieces of art related to Nazi but has never given any trustable information on whether there are claims already or some of them repatriated. For the Jewish and Brooklyn Museums, the unavailability of any claim is their reason for keeping the Nazi looted antiquities. Nevertheless, some of the American museums, sampled by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have relinquished part of their Nazi looted arts back to their origins alongside a pair of “The Kneeling Attendants” also known as Pandavas to Cambodia.

The decision by the majority of the American modern museums to retain the pieces of work they have carried out provenance on and determined to be related to Nazi is both right and wrong based on the ethical standards. The institutions are right because they cannot just release the pieces of historic work to no one . In the first place, they would be insecure and as they would no longer enjoy the protection given by the museums as per the ICOM ethical codes, such as section 2 subsection 2.1, which require them to safeguard these antiquities against all sorts of disasters. However, the museums are also ethically wrong because they violate the ICOM Code of Ethics on sections 2 subsection 2.4 on sound acquisition of antiquities. Similarly, the American museums violate the ICOM ethical codes of section 4 on subsection 4.1 on the need to advance knowledge by securing and allowing access to the primary research sources in the name of art works. Therefore, the dilemma facing the American museums on the looted and stolen arts emerges once again.

Cases of Stolen Arts in American Museums

Apart from the Nazi looted arts, stolen antiquities also dominate American museums. Most of the stolen arts, according to a report by Tharoor, are from Asia. Tharoor, for instance, indicates the case of art returned to Cambodia by the Cleveland Museum of Art. The piece of art is named Hanuman being a god of the Hindu and having origins that trace back to the 10th century when the temple was harboring it with a number of related antiquities. The reason to allow for the repatriation of the art is provenance that it shares the ancestry of the origin with related works whose research also shows originating from the same place. The operational ethical code for this action to return stolen art is the one that relates to avoiding improper acquisitions of such items by the modern museums.


Figure 2: Hanuman (Acquisition by the Cleveland Museum occurred in the year 1982). Source: Cleveland Museum.

Moreover, some other American museums of art returned their stolen pieces of antiquities. For instance, Marsberg indicates that the Ohio’s Toledo, Massachusetts’s and Hawaiian counterparts returned a number of Indian Buddhistantiquities back to the government authorities ready for repatriation. The Ohio’s Toledo Museum returned “the Hindu god” known to the local Indians as Ganesha, an art work made of bronze curved into a sculpture. In fact, about 60 pieces of art still remain in the custody of Ohio’s Toledo Museum of arts that are intended to be repatriated as well. Still, Norton Simon Museum Pasadena, CA, returned The Temple Wrestler known in the language of origin as Bhima to its temple country of Cambodia. Similarly, Sotheby’s New York also gave up on a piece of art named Athlete known in the local language of origin as Duryodhana back to the ancestral land of Cambodia. In addition, Denver Art Museum held Torso of Rama since 1986 that is not clear whether it has relinquished or still retains the item. The scale of malpractice in acquiring arts from India, thus, goes as afar as implicating about 15 American modern art museums. Nevertheless, some of these museums decline to repatriate the stolen pieces of art in their possession.

The extent of illegitimate Indian arts remain high as over 500 collections still remain identified as stolen, yet, retained by the American modern museums of art. Marsberg tells of four modern American art museums, namely, “the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired The Kneeling Attendants known in the language of origin as Pandavas between the years 1978 and 1992 as four separate pieces. These organizations insist that they have to be served with genuine and satisfying provenance results that the pieces of art they have actually originated and belonged to the places they are claimed to have come from, such as India and the rest of Asia.

This reasoning, according to the ICOM ethical principles and codes, is unfounded as it is the work of the museums to ensure they carry out sufficient provenance to determine the roots of their antiquities. Nevertheless, some of these museums, such as the Los Angeles one, maintain that their sound provenance research has acquitted all their over 60 pieces of art of any suspicion of illegal acquisition or suspected malpractice in their deals. However, no proof is available that can authoritatively set these pieces of art free from the allegations that they had been unethically acquired by the modern museums of art of the USA. Only a proper and non-partisan provenance research can do so.

Another American museum that has relinquished its stolen antiquities is the Peabody Essex Museum of Massachusetts. According to Marsberg, this museum of art returned a portrait that dates back to about the 19th century. Similarly, Marsberg reports that a Hawaiian museum named Honolulu Museum of Art repatriated a handful of collections that encompasses a Buddhist item. According to the authorities from the Honolulu Museum of Art, unethically acquired antiquity is improper for display and further possession. Therefore, the ICOM’s Ethical Code on legitimate acquisition and the need for illegal means informs the museums decisions to return these objects.

However, other ethical issues are also at play in the decision to return the objects. Tharoor, for instance, mentions that inability of the museums of art to carry out due diligence in the acquisition of the product through proper provenance is the main cause of their losses when they return them. As a result, Tharoor explains, the goal of having universal display of global cultures, talents, and historic collections is jeopardized by the unethical conducts of the American museums.

Conclusion and Recommendations

As a result of the critical situation that American museums face as well as the high ethical expectations regarding looted and stolen arts, a dilemma on acquisition, display, and repatriation of such illegal collections emerge. Therefore, it was important to evaluate the current status of the organizations’ ethical practices on the topic. The analysis revealed that ethical standard and code of practice is the key to their sustained businesses. First, the applicable ethical codes and their counter arguments show that observation of applicable standards is insufficient to legitimize their acquisitions, display, and provenance of the collections. Secondly, the scope of the ethical dilemma that the museums face today with regard to looted and stolen collections is equally immense. However, the answer to the problem lies within the same ethical principles and codes of conduct. Lastly, the cases of collections documented as looted or stolen and the subsequent actions taken to rectify the situation towards being absolutely ethical are also possible. In particular, due diligence is needed in repatriating the stolen or looted pieces of art.

Thus, it is recommended that the American museums should observe the key ethical codes of practice and related principles, especially those of due diligence in acquisition and display of collections, as a way of preventing claims and litigations that prove costly to the organizations. Moreover, the American museums need to employ full transparency and due diligence in determining and allowing for returns of looted and stolen antiquities as a way of cleansing the business of tainted image and irregularities in dealings. Additionally, the federal government to continue improving on its oversight roles against illegal trade on illicit collections as a way of assisting the museums to have clean businesses that would further their sustainability. Finally, the American museums must be genuine and competent in their provenance research determining the origin of questionable pieces of arts in their possession rather than hide the truth about them as the latter action only postpones the problem.

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