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 The Mysteries of Museums

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Islanddawn
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PostSubject: The Mysteries of Museums   Wed 17 Oct 2012, 15:10

The National Museum in Dublin is undergoing a major cataloguing (and re-discovery) of an estimated 300,000 artifacts currently in storage in their crypts, many of which have not seen the light of day in decades. Indeed many of these objects have long lost their description tags so I'd imagine that a re-identification process would also be in place, if possible. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/features/2012/1017/1224325323956.html

Any major museum would only have a very small proportion of it's possessions on display at any one time, which lead me to wondering how many historical artifacts are shoved away in storage (all over the world) never to be seen again, and seemingly also forgotten by museum staff? And how many missing pieces to historical puzzles could actually be mouldering away, long forgotten in some museum?

Possibly an archaeological dig on the archaeology is now required for everyone?
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Caro
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PostSubject: Re: The Mysteries of Museums   Wed 17 Oct 2012, 20:47

This is timely for me, ID. Only yesterday I had an argument with our museum director about an example of this, which I will have mentioned before since it annoyed me so much then, and still does really. Our historical society put on a function, attended by about 200 people, to commemorate the 125th anniversary of a major shipwreck. The figurehead for the ship is at the Dunedin Early Settlers' Museum (which has just now had a major makeover to the tune of about $30 million and will have a new name). We asked to have it for ONE day, and were refused. We wouldn't be able to have the right lighting and heating and and and... Maybe not, but the bloody thing had pranced over the oceans for years without great damage. It could have managed a day here.

I wouldn't have minded so much if it was on view there, or used in some way. But it's kept in storage and never seen. What is the point? The only reason to keep these things forever is for the benefit of humans - the artefacts themselves don't know or care. And if people never ever get to see them, it all seems a bit pointless.

It's usually a matter of space and that's understandable, and often a lack of cataloguers or the finance for them, but when someone specifically wants to use them, why not let them?

We have been very lucky with our museum items - our very proactive director (I do hope I haven't uspet her) got funding for our items to be catalogued on computer and they are now online and what we have can at least be found by anyone. We always had quite a good paper system.
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: The Mysteries of Museums   Sun 21 Oct 2012, 15:59

What the Irish Times article and Claire Anderson fail to mention is the principal reason behind so many artefacts being hidden from view for so long, something which contributed in no small measure to the subsequent mayhem regarding catalogue information.

In 1922 the newly established National Museum Authority inherited the governorship and custody of what once had been an adjunct to the British National Museum. Before the ink had even dried on the Treaty by which The Free State could declare its independence from British rule the authorities in London were lodging court cases, both in London and in Dublin, to have the contents of the museum transported to London. In this case - an important legal battle which in its eventual conclusion set a precedent for deciding all such issues with regard to newly independent states (Egyptians watched these proceedings like hawks) - one of the first demands from the British side was that the extensive catalogues be handed over at once, possession of which would go a long way to deciding the owner legally as these had the status of deeds in both Irish and British law. The case ran on right up to the late 1930s with the high courts in both lands agreeing that in the meantime the catalogues held the status of Fiduciary Deeds. In other words neither party could infer ownership through possession until the conveyancing of the catalgues was completed to everyone's satisfaction. The museum in Dublin therefore found itself custodian to hundreds of thousands of artefacts which they not only did not legally own but could not touch, in effect, until the wrangle was complete. Moreover there was no incentive whatsoever to maintain or update the catalogues in the meantime either. Artefacts later acquired by the museum therefore took priority with regard to cataloguing and storage, and bit by bit the existing hoard was split up and moved about to the point that even the ablest curator with the best will in the world could not hope to ever get control of the situation again.

Claire Anderson's team are doing a great job belatedly rectifying the situation. Though if they manage to get undisputed provenance restored with regard to half the items they will be doing very well indeed.

Incidentally the case was finally settled in the High Court in London in a ruling made in 1938. This had nothing to do directly with the artefacts issue but since it set a statute of limitations on fiduciary terms of ownership it effectively allowed the Irish museum to become default owners of their possessions. This in turn was challenged by the Indian government in formation in 1947 who, understandbly, said they would prefer not to have to kidnap their own cultural heritage and wait for ownership to default to them. Their insistence that the matter be covered directly by their own Treaty of Independence led to the standard method now whereby this thorny issue is resolved under international law.
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