Moral Claims Against Museums: The Emerging Concept of Moral Title to Objects of Cultural Heritage

By Charlotte Woodhead.

Published by The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Museums owe a duty to society to hold objects within their collections in trust for the benefit of society and have responsibilities towards a variety of stakeholders. These sentiments are expressed in the Codes of Ethics of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the UK’s Museums Association. A particular concern is the provenance (or ownership history) of the collected objects. In some instances museums around the world now contain objects of cultural heritage which were taken from their owners during the Second World War in morally reprehensible circumstances (and which could be said to have a “tainted” provenance). In recent years museums have undertaken provenance research and published lists of objects with uncertain provenance between the years 1933-1945.

Museums may enjoy an undisputed legal entitlement to these objects, yet this can be at odds with the moral claims of survivors of the Second World War who were dispossessed of their objects, or indeed the moral claims of their heirs.

This paper will consider how far the legal entitlement to objects of cultural heritage enjoyed by museums should be limited by the moral claims of these third party stakeholders. Consideration will be given to the difficulties in defining moral entitlement as a universally recognised concept.

It will be argued that the moral strength of claims to cultural heritage is gaining an increasing recognition throughout museum practice. Some museums which have the power to de-accession objects from their collections choose to exercise that power based on the moral claims of third parties, rather than rely on their strict legal entitlements to objects.

In particular the paper will analyse panels such as the United Kingdom Spoliation Advisory Panel which recommends solutions for resolving such disputes without resort to the courts and consider whether the body of decisions by these panels has resulted in the development of a concept of moral entitlement to objects of cultural heritage.

Keywords: Cultural Heritage, Legal Entitlement, Moral Entitlement, Competing Claims, Second World War, Interests of Stakeholders

International Journal of the Inclusive Museum, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp.1-12. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.195MB).

Charlotte Woodhead

Lecturer, School of Law and Criminology, University of Derby, Derby, Derbyshire, UK

Charlotte Woodhead is a lecturer in Law at the School of Law and Criminology at the University of Derby. Her research interests include the law relating to Cultural Heritage and she has written a number of articles on the law relating to the repatriation of human remains from museum collections. More recently she has contributed the chapter ‘Ownership, possession, title and transfer: human remains in museum collections’ to the forthcoming volume of Modern Studies in Property Law (Hart publishing 2009) She is currently undertaking studies towards a PhD on a part-time basis at the University of Leicester on the topic of property rights in Cultural Heritage.

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