Thursday 8 August 2013

CAG on museums: The incident of the George Brown collection sale

Reverend Doctor George Brown, missionary and explorer

The George Brown Collection was accumulated through the efforts of Reverend Doctor George Brown. Brown migrated from England to New Zealand in 1855, not originally as a missionary, but he was converted and worked across the Pacific in Samoa, Fiji, New Britain, and New Ireland.  Brown was knowledgeable about the customs, people, and languages of the islands he had worked on as a Wesleyan Methodist missionary for over 48 years, and in that time he also amassed a very important collection of diverse objects. After Brown passed away in 1917, a large portion of his collection was housed in his hometown of Durham and purchased by the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle as a teaching collection. Then acquired by Newcastle University, and not the Natural History Society of Northumbria who owns most other ethnographic collections in the Hancock Museum, curatorial staff helped with the George Brown collection management and in 1974 a few objects were on display.

Late 1970s photograph of the George Brown collection in the Hancock Museum

In 1985 the George Brown Collection was purchased by the National Museum of Ethnology at Osaka, Japan for £600,000 with the exception of some objects that were individually valued at over £16,000 and could not be granted export permits. There were strong objections to sale of such an important collection of Pacific objects from the curators at the museum and anthropologists elsewhere. The Hancock Museum gained an unfortunate reputation and the sale by Newcastle University was criticized for its ‘display of naked philistinism on the part of an otherwise respected university’. Indeed, the collection was deemed by the university as a disposable duplicate collection of sorts with several examples and similar types of objects already existing in the other ethnography collections.
Malanggan tatanua mask New Ireland,
George Brown collection 
© National Museum of Ethnology Osaka, Japan 
Tatanua mask of Wellcome Collection origin
currently on display at the Great North Museum: Hancock

The debates about the sale occurred not only in England and Japan, but also across the Pacific about issues of museum ownership, national pride, and issues of depleting cultural resources from newly decolonized countries. Many debates were sparked across museum curator networks and collections management professionals about whether museum collections are disposable assets, what are trustee obligations to protecting collections, and what is the benefit to a collection in storage without access readily available to it, alongside many other issues.

Fijian sperm whale tooth necklace © National Museum of Ethnology Osaka, Japan

Twenty-seven years later these debates still occur in the museum realm and at times ideals of museum collection and object retention seem harder to defend than ever. It costs money, takes a lot of time, and space to only work with a policy of museum retention. With the current state of play, arts budgets in the UK have been cut, employees made redundant, and many museums run mainly on volunteer based help, youth schemes, and short-term contracts. Changes to circumstances, the social makeup of cities, and attitudes mean that disposing of collections in the present can later be a regrettable decision. Art museums especially in America, have long sold artworks in order to purchase new and prestigious works, but there is little parallel to the situation of ethnographic collections in the UK. The Code of Ethics of the American Association of Museums also has a de-accessioning policy that permits the practice in terms of care of the collections, but not for operational costs.

What about the idea of museums as research institutions? Although admittedly serving a smaller community of academics, researchers, and descendants who use collections as a keys to family histories, the benefit of holding on to collections to operate as research institutions must present a valid part of the museum mission. For national and regional UK museums, collections represent heritage held in trust for the benefit of the public. I’m not opposed to letting go of any collections at all, but I would argue that it is very difficult to know enough about individual objects, let alone entire collections, to put a definite values on them that will account for their loss to local communities, researchers, and museum audiences in the present and future.

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