The Ironbridge Lecture 2012: Who owns, Who knows, Who cares? Legal Milestones on the Trail of Orphaned and Abducted Art

Arts and Law
Wednesday 5th December 2012 (17:30-19:00)
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To book a place at this free event please email Caroline Ashton (

Museums contain many things of uncertain origin and lineage, inevitably because many collections are ancient and because collecting practices were different long ago. An object that has lived through colonisation, war and persecution, for example, is unlikely to arrive at a museum with a full family tree.   

These gaps in knowledge are part of the fascination of museum objects. They remind us that things had a life before they became exhibits and that behind these inanimate objects are human stories. To rebuild the past movement of an object can be as instructive as to unveil its original creation and purpose. But the same gaps can be embarrassing when the museum is asked to lend the object or is otherwise challenged to justify its holding of it.


Between the unearthing of an archaeological object and its appearance in a public museum there exists a middle stage that seldom excites much public attention. This concerns the process by which a discovered antiquity becomes public property or otherwise enters the public domain. Such processes vary from country to country, not only in the way they work but also in the respect they receive. They affect both the museums that acquire such objects into their permanent collections and the museums that borrow and display them. The Museums Association Code prohibits the modern acquisition of objects that are tainted by title defects or, by illicit export and, the Association provides guidance for the consideration of claims for the repatriation of objects removed in ancient times.

However, that such laws are not universally honoured can be witnessed in the modern law cases that have arisen from dealings in illicit archaeological material. Such dealings have been condemned as causing many evils: the mutilation of archaeological sites, the irretrievable loss of contextual knowledge, the banishment of treasures from the public gaze, the debasement of the legitimate market by the upward percolation of tainted objects that threaten its integrity, and even the corrosion of national dignity and identity. On occasions they have damaged the respect in which museums are held and have called into question the proper role of cultural institutions.

This lecture will examine the stories underlying some of the claims and the efforts of those who attempt to retrieve ‘orphaned’ and ‘abandoned’ objects and asks whether the present network of laws go far enough and whether the policies underlying the current approaches are coherent and justified. Should our desire to act correctly in this field go beyond an exercise in institutional self-denial? Should we be seeking a more creative and pragmatic response to the challenges presented by these orphaned and abducted antiquities.

The year's lecture will be delivered by Professor Norman Palmer QC Hon CBE FSA.

From 5pm guests attending the lecture will have the opportunity to tour the University's Heritage and Cultural Learning Hub. The Hub harnesses the power of digital technologies to enrich learning experiences in the spheres of heritage and culture.