Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Call for Museum Audits

Joel Meares, ‘The Shiva scandal has led to calls for museum audits’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 2014

The National Gallery of Australia’s controversial dancing Shiva statue is now in the possession of the federal government and several suspect Indian statues have been removed from the floor of the Art Gallery of the NSW. But there may yet be more skeletons in the closets of our most venerable institutions. The challenge is to find them.

Robyn Sloggett, director of University of Melbourne’s Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, believes a national audit of our museums’ acquisition practices and holdings is due. It could prove expensive and inconvenient, as well as labour and resource-intensive, but it will be money well spent to avoid potential future costs and save a whole lot of face.

Since the story of the NGA’s dancing Shiva broke wide on ABC’s Four Corners in March, Sloggett has hit out hard against the “lack of due diligence” that allowed the National Gallery, along with the AGNSW, to purchase works from now-disgraced antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor.

“The framework [for an audit] is there,” says Sloggett, pointing to the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects and a 1970 UNESCO convention prohibiting the illicit trafficking of cultural material, both of which Australia has signed. “It shouldn’t be up to the press to find the issues. Has Western Australia got anything? We don’t know. There was nothing said about it. Was everything at the National Gallery purchased from [Kapoor] fully assessed? If it was, it’s been a silent process.”

According to Sloggett, an audit would first look into our museums’ current acquisition processes – “What are the provenance checks? Who does them? How rigorous are they? Do they fit within a standard?” – before assessing the provenance information for items already in the institutions’ collection. “Directors are going out for public money and private money for acquisitions: being able to show due process seems a pretty big part of arguing that,” says Sloggett. “Is it going to be more expensive to just wait ’til a problem comes up? It is going to be expensive to fail as publicly as the NGA and the AGNSW did?”

The public failures to which Sloggett refers are, of course, the NGA and AGNSW’s purchases from Kapoor, the owner of the Art of the Past gallery on New York’s Madison Avenue who is currently on trial in India for trafficking idols stolen from Indian temples at his request. The NGA purchased 22 artworks from Kapoor’s Art of the Past between 2002 and 2011, including photographs, paintings and 15 sculptures from south and south-east Asia. Among them was the Shiva as Lord of the Dance statue from the 11th or 12 century that Four Corners showed had been stolen from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The gallery paid $5 million for the piece. The AGNSW acquired six Indian works from Art of the Past between 1994 and 2004, including a stone sculpture of the god Ardhanarishvara, also from Tamil Nadu.

While the NGA showed signs it would initially resist a call from the Indian government for the return of the Shiva, along with the AGNW’s Ardhanarishvara, neither gallery ultimately contested the call and both statues are now in the possession of Attorney-General George Brandis’s office while their fate is decided. AGNSW director Michael Brand said the Gallery had immediately provided details of six works it had acquired from Kapoor’s and was committed to ensuring strict due diligence with regard to provenance when acquiring works of art for its collection.

The episode was embarrassing for the institutions involved: Shiva made international headlines and Brandis publicly scolded the NGA for an “incautious” decision to buy the prized piece. “The due diligence standards of the NGA – which are very high, in fact are the world’s best practice – were not, in my view, sufficiently met,” he told Four Corners. The NGA was also roundly criticised for its handling of the scandal, firstly for insisting that it would wait for Kapoor’s legal proceedings to play out before acting on India’s request for repatriation, despite damning evidence. In contrast, the National Gallery of Victoria – which faced a request for restitution of the painting Head of a man to the legal heir of its former owner, who had sold the work under duress from the Nazi regime – has been praised for reviewing the evidence and promptly making the decision to restitute the work in May.

Patrick Greene, chief executive of Museum Victoria and chairman of the Council of Australasian Museum Directors (CAMD), says there is “a lot to commend” in the call for an audit of acquisition policies. Greene says that CAMD and several museums and organisations are consulting with the federal Ministry for the Arts over an update to the government’s due diligence guidelines for acquisitions. He says the illicit trade is “a despicable trade, which at its roots, destroys the culture of countries from which material has been ripped and looted”, and museum directors need to be front-footed in stamping it out. Greene says the ministry’s current guidelines can be strengthened through the consultation. “They won’t be obligatory, but nonetheless, when the final version emerges there will be a real opportunity for organisations such as CAMD to promulgate them to our members, with a strong expectation that these will form the bases of new practices,” he says.

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Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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