Accountability in the Museum Industry

Provenance and authenticity of artworks are the primary concerns of Regestra as forgeries and illegal sales are an unfortunate byproduct of the art market. Museums are also concerned with the provenance and legality of artwork to avoid running into legal or ethical trouble. However, museum officials have many other things to be accountable for that are often overlooked.

When an object enters a museum, the museum is now accountable for that object regardless of how the object came into the museum’s possession. This accountability encompasses protecting the object from damage through safe storage and handling, accurately disseminating the information associated with it, always being aware of the objects whereabouts, and making sure that the object is authentic and legally obtained. Failure to comply with these standards of stewardship have legal or ethical ramifications and may lead to the erosion of the public’s trust in the museum. With so much at stake, museums employ a variety of methods to ensure an objects safety and only entrust the care of objects to those readily trained and equipped.

Objects can become the responsibility of the museum either through a gift, loan, a partial ownership, or a temporary custody. Regardless of how an object made its way into the museum collection the museum is now expected to protect, care for, and house the object. Museums will create a unique collection management policy that outlines how to best care for collection items, avoid conflicts of interest, negotiate loans and accession of objects, and assigning duties to various personal. There are various ethical guidelines offered by organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums and the International Council of Museums, but it is advised that individual museums have their own institutional guidelines as well. A collection management policy is a way to instill accountability in museum workers, to make sure everyone knows the part they play, and a way for museums to avoid ethically or legally dubious situations.

Although museums are in the business of collecting objects, they also have to contend with limited storage, funding, resources, and a unique mission statement to fulfill. Consequently, a museum cannot possibly care for every object that is offered to them. It is important that a museum be able to turn down objects that they will not feasibly be able to care for or that are not relevant to their mission statement. Generally, the registrar is in charge of deciding whether or not to accept an object. A museum’s collection policy will stipulate who is in charge of accepting objects so the museum can avoid problems like the museums security guards or front guest staff accepting objects. If the museum does agree to accept or hold an object, there is a variety of documentation and paperwork that is needed.

Depending on whether an object is gifted, loaned, bequeathed, or is being temporarily held, there are a variety of documents needed. To help verify the legality of an object, a registrar collects any information they can on the history and provenance of the object such as papers, documentation, and photographs. It is important to make sure an object is authentic, legally acquired, and not protected by any international restrictions. Oftentimes both dealers and donors will be provided with provenance questionnaires as a way to ensure that all the necessary information is gathered. These documents can be used to pave the road for further research as all information gathered should be professionally verified. Objects being considered for accession might have a temporary custody agreement that stipulates that the donor or dealer is still the owner while the museum is considering the object for the collection.

When an object is donated to the museum, intent to donate must be expressed usually orally or through a deed of gift. If a museum does decide to accession an object a transfer of title is required to legally pass the object into the museum’s ownership. Purchasing an object makes provenance and legality much more important. Most of the time the museum will have the dealer sign a warranty of indemnification to ensure that the object can be refunded and that the dealer will retain full legal responsibility it the object was found to not be legally acquired.

One of the most important things to do whenever any object is taken into a museum is to assign some sort of number for tracking the object. All documents associated with the object are marked with the tracking number and if the object moves to different parts of the museum the number and movement is notated on a ledger. The tracking number is how the museum always knows where an object is located and also is a way of organizing all of the information related to an object. The tracking number can be an accession number if the object is being accepted into the museum’s collection, a temporary tracking number if the object is still being considered for accession, or a loan number if the object is on loan. Museums may differ in how these numbers are written, but generally they include signifiers such as the year the object was taken in, the number of transactions that year, the amount of objects in that transaction, if there are multiple parts of an object, and whether the object is on loan or being temporarily held.

Marking of the tracking number is often done on the object itself, which naturally requires handling the object. There are heavy risks associated with both handling and marking the object, so obviously not just anyone is allowed to do so. Proper knowledge and training are crucial to knowing how to safely handle an object as well as determining what sort of method to use to mark the object. For instance, proper gloves must be worn when handling objects as a way of protecting both the object and the wearer. Cotton gloves are the standard but nitrile or butyl gloves might be worn when handling porous or slippery objects such as stone or ceramics. It is important that a registrar knows which type of glove is appropriate for which object. There are different marking methods depending both on the type of object and whether the object is a permanent collection item, a loan, or an object used for demonstrations. Generally a slightly dull pencil is used as it is easy to correct mistakes but pigma pens or quills might also be used to mark on three dimensional objects that have a base coat of Acryloid B-72 or to mark on tags that can be attached to objects. It is crucial to know which method is appropriate for which object in order to avoid scratches, stains, and other damage. When an object is being handled it is at the most risk of being damaged. That is why only trained and experienced staff members are accountable for handling objects.

Not every object in a museum will be on display, in fact the majority of a museum’s collection will likely be in storage. Along with making sure an object is properly documented, tracked, and handled the museum is also accountable for safely storing objects. As with handling and marking, different objects will require different means of storage. For example, paintings cannot be stacked or shelved and hanging them is actually the best way to store them. Large screens that can be pulled out when a painting is required are the safest way to store paintings. Works on paper can be stored in large flat file cabinets with acid free tissue in between each work. Small sculptures can be stored on shelves. Objects are given condition reports before they are displayed or are due to travel. Abrasions, scratches, mold, insect infestation, and other forms of damage are noted. The object is then assessed on whether it requires conservation work or is okay to travel or be handled. When an object is due to be transported, every part of the move must be carefully planned and orchestrated.

The arrival of an object at a museum is no simple task. Because museums are accountable for whatever may enter the museum, they need to be equipped to store, handle, and process whatever may come in as well as turn down whatever is not relevant. Concrete collection policies are essential to avoiding any confusion on who is responsible and for outlining what should be done in any given situation. Proper documentation and tracking numbers will help keep the museum out of legal trouble and make sure both objects and pertinent information are not lost. To protect an object from damage, appropriate handling and storage methods must be observed by those that are trained to do so. With so much to be accountable for, a museum should be constantly checking that excellent stewardship is being practiced and that workers can effectively carry out their responsibilities.

— Article by: Christopher Rahmeh