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AC’s Tess Davis and Helena Arose: Museum transparency and ethical conduct regarding stolen cultural property necessary in maintaining public trust

February 22, 2024

In an article for LinkedIn, AC Executive Director Tess Davis and AC Director of Programs Helena Arose consider the question: Is the Rubin Museum’s closure in 2024 connected to its past involvement with the illicit trade in antiquities? 

Despite the museum’s answer that it is not, Davis and Arose examine the institution’s track record of collecting and transparency, and conclude that “Whether directly related or not, this situation underscores the power of public perception in shaping the actions of cultural institutions in the United States. In any case, it serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting the importance of transparency and ethical conduct in maintaining public trust.”

As institutions that serve the public, museums must begin to face the reality of reputational and financial risks associated with unlawful or unethical behavior. The AC is committed to holding all those involved in the illicit trade of antiquities accountable for their role in cultural racketeering.

Check out the article below or on LinkedIn, and follow Tess, Helena, and the AC on LinkedIn for more.

“This decision [to shutter the museum’s doors] has nothing to do with the works that we have repatriated.”

This interesting and telling line from Jorrit Britschgi, Executive Director of the Rubin Museum of Art, appeared at the end of a The New York Times article announcing the Manhattan museum’s shock closure after twenty years of operation. It was the article’s first mention of the ethical and legal challenges facing the museum, including allegations of possession and display of looted antiquities, which led to the repatriation of three objects to Nepal over the last two years.

Board president Noah Dorsky attributed the closure instead to the fact that “the definition of what a museum is has evolved dramatically in recent years.”

He’s right. The history of museums and museum practice is linked with that of plunder and power. This has led to decades of the display of spoils of war, confiscated treasures, and outright loot in museums around the world. But as scandals, criminal investigations, and prosecutions reach the very heights of the art world and make headlines around the world, museums have been forced to reimagine themselves and their future—and the Rubin, referred to as “one of the world’s largest and most important collections of Himalayan art,” is no exception.

The Rubin Museum opened in 2004 to house the collection of its founders, Donald and Shelley Rubin, who began buying Himalayan art in the mid-1970s. While attitudes toward collecting were different half a century ago, it should be noted that the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property was signed in 1970, marking a shift in international norms on acquiring cultural property even then. The treaty is not the only thing that should have put institutions on notice. That same year, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology issued a statement of ethics referred to as the Pennsylvania Declaration, asserting that the museum would no longer acquire objects without adequate provenance. Organizations including the International Council of Museums and the American Alliance and Museums adopted codes of ethics in 1986 and 1993 respectively, further codifying best practices for collecting.

Despite these guidelines, the Rubin collection grew to over 3,400 objects spanning over 1,500 years—some of which have since been proven to be stolen property. In 2022, the museum repatriated two ancient artifacts to Nepal—a carving of a female deity, and an ornamental element of a temple. Late last year, a gilt bronze Bhairava mask surrendered by the museum to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office was also repatriated.

These were not collected in the bygone days of the 20th century—or even in the early decades of Donald and Shelley Rubin’s collecting career. Rather, they were acquired in 2003, 2010, and 2005, respectively. And, despite launching a multi-year project in 2016 to research its collection, all three repatriations came only in response to Nepali activists’ calls.

The Rubin is not the only U.S. museum facing pressure to evaluate its collection. In the past year alone, American university museums and our nation’s top art institutions have faced scrutiny from activists, scholars, journalists, law enforcement, and even comedians. Late-night host John Oliver did a whole episode on museums’ involvement with illicit antiquities, which featured Mr. Britschgi himself pleading the fifth to a question on Rubin’s connections with a convicted trafficker.

Despite this involvement in the illicit trade of art and antiquities, museums have been and continue to remain highly trusted by the public. The American public can thus make a difference by demanding accountability from these institutions. The public’s trust is a valuable asset held by museums. The public should feel empowered to recognize that museums are accountable and should ask questions. If that doesn’t work, the public can withhold membership or attendance money, share opinions directly, or participate in surveys and give feedback.

The example of the Rubin Museum of Art’s announced shift serves as a warning of the potential impact of public awareness and action. With the museum’s financial challenges publicly documented, it raises the question of whether the public and donors, aware of the museum’s implication in stolen art scandals, have begun to withhold their support. Whether directly related or not, this situation underscores the power of public perception in shaping the actions of cultural institutions in the United States. In any case, it serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting the importance of transparency and ethical conduct in maintaining public trust.

The Antiquities Coalition is not alone in following these developments. To name a few, Erin Thompson and Emiline Smith, both experts on the illicit trade of art and sacred objects from Southeast Asia have written and commented on this announcement. Additionally, Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign is leading the fight to return Nepal’s stolen heritage, including the mentioned pieces from the Rubin — check out a recent article on their efforts.

We will continue our efforts to hold museums and institutions housing looted antiquities accountable and work to shape public perception about the realities of this illegal trade.