It has been announced by the The Museums Association (MA) that publicly funded museums that seek to sell off works of importance to the nation, will face tougher sanctions. The MA, the body that overseas the UK’s museums, is to tighten up its ethics code to avoid controversial sell-offs of valuable antiquities from cash-strapped museum collections. The MA is also in talks with the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), the Art Fund, and Arts Council England to establish a “joined-up response” to those selling important objects for financial gain. The MA is also seriously considering whether to launch an official list of at-risk collections.
The move by the MA follows Northampton Borough Council’s decision to sell its ancient Egyptian statue of Sekhemka for £15.8 million in July of this year. The sale prompted the MA to withdraw accredited status for Northampton Museums, one of its founder members 125 years ago. As a result the museums lost out on subsequent funding grants which included £240,000 from the HLF.
The MA’s director, Sharon Heal, told The Independent that the sale breached its code of ethics. “They didn’t follow due process and it’s a hugely significant piece that was important to the people of Northampton,” she said. “It’s a shame that the people at the very top of Northampton council didn’t think twice about this.”
Northampton’s decision to sell the important work came a year after Croydon Council sold 17 Chinese ceramics from the Museum of Croydon’s Riesco Gallery for £8.2 million, which it did despite pressure from the community and the MA, which later barred it from accreditation.
The Northampton council defended its own sale stating in a response that the proceeds were split between itself and Lord Northampton, the statue’s original owner. It added: “The money will be invested in a major extension of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery.”
Yet the MA is not entirely opposed to sales “if museums act in an ethical way in respect to the public, the collection and the museum”, Ms Heal to The Independent, referencing the Watts Gallery, Surrey, which sought advice before selling paintings and reinvesting the money. She added: “We recognise local authorities face a tough time. We just want to caution that if you’re going down this road, follow the process and you’re acting in the public’s best interest.”
The MA is in talks with the HLF, Arts Fund and Arts Council concerning the introduction of tougher sanctions. “They are the big funders, and as the administrators of the ethics code we’re working on whether we can develop further sanctions and deterrents,” Ms Heal said. Adding that the bodies will meet in 2015. Among the potential ideas is “a red list for collections at risk”, Ms Heal said. “Unesco issues a warning on heritage sites… we’re going to consult members on something similar.”