We were delighted to take part in the European Registrars Conference in London this week. This biennial event is highly impressive in its scope and reach, bringing together registrars from across the globe to discuss myriad issues from insurance to art loans to the practicalities of transportation and storage.
In a fascinating opening discussion about the role of the registrar in the twenty-first century, the panel were asked to give their thoughts on how the profession had changed in recent times. The first respondent, unanimously supported by the other panel members, highlighted the significant increase in the level of legal knowledge and understanding now required to fulfil the role. Not only do registrars need to be: project managers, subject-matter experts, engagement officers, finance controllers and many other things, they also need to add a legal string to their bows!
It was good to be on hand, therefore, to offer a legal perspective on a couple of key issues for registrar: the first, a matter of ongoing debate for the profession – the deaccession and sale of works from a collection, on which I offered some thoughts, and the second, for which IAL’s Senior Fellow Geoffrey Bennett took the stage, the somewhat pressing matter of Brexit and its potential impact on the sector.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Brexit theme loomed large over the two days’ of talks. Despite repeated assurances from the Government’s DCMS representative that “the Government fully expects there to be a deal” the concerns of the sector are palpable and increasing as time goes by and the uncertainties remain. Interesting questions were raised on a number of fronts: how will customs processes change in practice and will this result in delays when loans or acquisitions move between the UK and Europe? How do museums deal with loans sent out prior to 29th March 2019 but returning after the assigned Brexit date? How will regulations such as CITES work in a post-Brexit world? In light of the unfolding events in UK politics over the coming days and weeks, we are very much ‘watching this space’ for any steer on these, and many other Brexit-related questions.
Whilst the sands are not shifting quite so dramatically on the topic of deaccession from museum collections, it is nonetheless an area which sparks lively debate. Is it ever ethically acceptable for a museum to sell items from its collection? The notion of a ‘financially-motivated disposal’ is a relatively recent phenomenon for the sector – at least, as far as open, transparent discussion is concerned: no doubt deaccessions and sales have been taking place under the radar for very much longer. A series of sales (and attempted sales) from North American institutions over the past eighteen months has brought the debate to the fore once more. Indeed, we have kept a watchful eye on these cases in blog posts, considering the various issues raised for the Berkshire Museum, Massachusetts, La Salle University in Philadelphia and most recently the National Gallery of Canada. The message of the session was, overall, one of cautious pragmatism: undoubtedly, the decisions and processes involved in deaccession and sale are difficult and fraught with potential risks and hurdles, both legal and ethical, but conducted thoughtfully and carefully, such disposals can have positive consequences for museums. Delegates seemed to agree, debating in a subsequent Twitter discussion the merits of ‘undoing bad collections policies of the past’ and ensuring the relevance of collections, whilst adopting a rigorous and judicious approach.
The fascinating and productive discussions throughout the conference, both on social media and face to face amongst the 800 or so delegates typified the whole event – and indeed, this collaborative, supportive and inclusive vibe seems to run through the profession itself. This was highlighted by numerous speakers, none more so than Gina Irish, who ended her compelling talk on the recovery operation at Christchurch Art Gallery after the earthquake in 2011 by quoting the Maori proverb: He waka eke noa, or ‘we are all in this together’.
We certainly are, and the IAL looks forward to working with more registrars in the UK and elsewhere on that ever-crucial legal component of their fascinating and wide-ranging roles.