Peter van Mensch, Amsterdam/Berlin

The following paper is based on and inspired by discussions within the ICOM International Committee for Collecting. This committee (usually referred to as COMCOL) was created in 2009, receiving full status within the ICOM institutional framework in 2013. The aim of the committee is to deepen discussions, and share knowledge on the practice, theory and ethics of collecting and collections (both tangible and intangible) development. The mandate includes: collecting and de-accessioning policies; contemporary collecting; restitution of cultural property and respectful practices that affect the role of collections now and in the future, from all types of museums and from all parts of the world.1

Three case studies

In November 2012 the Czech government decided to return Roman Catholic church property, confiscated by the communist regime in 1948, to the church authorities. In December 2015 a claim of the parish of Veverská Bitýška (now a suburb of Brno) concerning a 14th century painting in the collection of the National Gallery (Prague) was honoured (Neudert 2016). Since the mid-14th century the painting was shown in the chapel of Veveřy castle, later moved to the chapel of a local cemetery. During the first republic the castle became the property of the State Forestry Agency which donated the painting to the National Gallery. In March 2016 the painting was returned to Brno were it is exhibited in the Diocesan Museum (in the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul).





The 14thcentury Madonna z Veveřy. (Photo source:

After the re-establishment of the Lithuanian State in 1990, church heritage, confiscated by the Soviet regime, was returned to the church authorities. For the management of its heritage the Archbishopric of Vilnius created the Church Heritage Museum in 2005.2 In 2011 the museum decided to restore the important “Our Lady of Lukiškės” icon from the Church of St. Philip and St. Jacob. The icon, which since the 18th century has been regarded to have miracle-working powers, had been returned to the church in 1992. When the icon was brought back to the church in 2013, its was completely different: the 18th century layer of paint has been removed in order to reveal its original 13th century appearance.





The icon Our Lady of Lukiškės in its 18th century version. (Photo: Bažnytinio Paveldo Muziejus [Church Heritage Museum], Vilnius).







The icon Our Lady of Lukiškės in its restored 13th century version. (Photo: Bažnytinio Paveldo Muziejus [Church Heritage Museum], Vilnius).

The world famous Brachiosaurus skeleton of the Museum für Naturkunde (Berlin) was excavated in 1909-1913 in Tendaguru (present day Tanzania). Recently, historian Michael Pesek made clear that this excavation cannot be seen independent from German colonial rule. Local population may not have been forced to work at the excavation, but they had no alternative to earn a living (Daum 2016), How do these case studies connect with the theme of the current conference? The connecting factor is the growing awareness within the museum community of the importance of the study of the history of collections, and the openness to discuss new forms of ownership.

The Brachiosaurus skeleton at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. (Photo: Carola Radke, Museum für Naturkunde).

Unpacking collections

The Collections for the Future report (2005) advocated ‘new intellectual approaches [to] invigorate collections’. It considered museums to have ‘a responsibility to be open to all alternative perspectives’ (Wilkinson 2005). This involves a continuous reflection on the significance of the collection as a whole and its constitutive components, including a reflection on documentation and conservation-restoration practices. Every museum has to balance between the historicity of its collection and the requirements of the present day mission. The composition of collections reflects a development of knowledge. Old collections are, in fact, accumulations of `fossilised world views’, each one covering the next, like matruskas, the wooden Russian dolls (Van Mensch & Meijer-van Mensch 2010). During the COMCOL annual conference of 2014 on “Collecting and collections in times of war or political and social change” (Celje, Slovenia) is was shown how important it is to reflect upon the history of collections and the documentary value that is embedded in this dimension (Van Mensch 2015a). This is covering new ground in museological thinking. The same perspective was developed in the book Unpacking the collection. Networks of material and social agency in the museum (Byrne Clarke Harrison & Torrence 2011). The book aims to uncover “new ways to think about relationships formed between object and individuals and among diverse groups spread across the globe” (p. 3). “Museum collections have been and are still active in forming social relations between varied persons and groups, including creator communities, collectors, anthropologists [the authors focus on ethnographical museums, PvM], curators, auctioneers and museum administrators, all of whom have also been shaped through interactions with each other and with the material objects” (p. 4). It is obvious that the authors are using the Actor Network Theory of Bruno Latour and others as a new instrument to analyse (“unpack”) collections.
To some extend Unpacking the collection is an extension of the older concept of cultural biography as introduced by Igor Kopytoff (Kopytoff 1986). Kopytoff states that in doing the biography of a thing, one would ask questions similar to those one asks about people. For example, what, sociologically, are the biographical possibilities inherent in its “status” and in the period and culture, and how are these possibilities realized? (Kopytoff 1986: 66). In current museological theory the concept of biography is extended to the process of musealisation (Van Mensch 2015 b).
An example of the application of aforementioned two principles is the restoration of the Galerie d’Anatomie comparée at the Jardin des Plantes (Paris). The building was opened to the public in 1898. The preparations for the restoration started one hundred years later. It was decided to leave the arrangement of the objects (mostly skeletons) intact since this arrangement is reflecting scientific thought at the end of the 19th century. At the same time the arrangement is an example of museological practice of that period (Van-Praët 1999). Besides respecting the “culture scientifique” and the “esprit des concepts muséographiques” behind the gallery, labels were added with information about the history of individual objects. For example, the skeleton of an orangutan comes from the first living specimen shown in Europe. In 1777 the animal was exhibited in the zoo of the Dutch Stadtholder Prince William V. After the animal’s death the skeleton was transferred to the Stadtholder’s natural history cabinet. It was confiscated by the French in 1795, together with other objects from the cabinet, and added to the collections at the Jardin des Plantes. By adding cultural biographies to natural history specimens, the gallery becomes a “meta-museum” (Bal 1997), a place of “metadiscursive” critique (Bal 1992) where the visitor can reflect on how collections are accumulated and knowledge constructed.


The Galérie d’Anatomie Comparée in the Jardin des Plantes (Paris). (Photo: Peter van Mensch).

Sharing cultural biographies as metadiscursive practice raises questions of biased interpretation, legitimacy and ownership. In 1897 the British army destroyed the capital city of the Kingdom of Benin (in present day Nigeria). The royal palace was looted. Thousands of bronze decorations ended up in European and American collections. Most museums with a collection of Benin bronzes give information about the origin of these objects, but are less explicit about how these objects were acquired by the museum thus avoiding discussion about the moral dimension of ownership (Dohlvik 2006).

The looting of the Royal Palace Kingdom of Benin in 1897. (Photo by Reginald Granville, in collection of Pitt Rivers Museum/Oxford, U.K.. Source:

Reconsidering ownership

Palaeontologist and prolific writer about evolution, Stephen Jay Gould referred to natural history museums as guardians of the second best: “When the pith and essence disappear, we are reduced to arguing over scraps and relics […] but when we have lost the living by human malfeasance, what can be more residually noble than faithful preservation and accurate documentation of often pitiable fragments?” (Gould 1996: 281). To some extent the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums can be considered as expression of what Gould describes as “residually noble”. However, the code acknowledges the role of museums as “second best” option. In Chapter 1 it says: “Museums are responsible for the tangible and intangible natural and cultural heritage”. In Chapter 2 this is qualified by stating that “Museums have the duty to acquire, preserve and promote their collections as a contribution to safeguarding the natural, cultural and scientific heritage”. The articles on valid title, provenance, fieldwork, culturally sensitive material, living collections, and others, show that the acquisition and preservation of collections is subject to a general responsibility for the heritage of mankind. The use of the term safeguarding in this context is relevant (Van Mensch & Meijer-van Mensch 2016: 100). In The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics Janet Marstine mentions guardianship as one of the cornerstones of “the new museum ethics” (Marstine 2011). About guardianship, the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums states: “Museums that maintain collections hold them in trust for the benefit of society and its development. […] Inherent in this public trust is the notion of stewardship, which includes rightful ownership, permanence, documentation, accessibility and responsible disposal” (Chapter 2, Principle). To Marstine, this not only includes access as core value, but can also be connected with the concept of temporality. As Marstine writes: “In contemporary museum ethics discourse the concept of guardianship is a means towards respecting the dynamic, experiential and contingent quality of heritage and towards sharing in new ways the rights and responsibilities to this heritage”. This involves more than the question by whom and where objects are kept. It also refers to intellectual ownership, i.e. the question of who decides about how objects are framed in museums.
Recently, the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam) decided to remove racially charged terms from artwork’s titles and descriptions (Siegal 2015). The museum will keep the original titles in its database as it does not want to change the cultural biography of objects. The project as such adds to the cultural biography with a new title and description as expression of a new awareness, and to some extend as an expression of a new understanding of intellectual ownership.
The ICOM Cultural Diversity Charter (2010) asks for the recognition and affirmation of “all forms of cultural diversity and biological diversity at local, regional and international levels, and to reflect this diversity in all policies and programs of museums across the world”. It wishes to ensure “the ownership of the processes as the defining element”. This principle is usually translated into the principle of shared responsibility: a shared responsibility of museum staff, a shared responsibility of organizations and interest groups, and a shared responsibility of museums and their creator (source) communities. The concept of shared heritage is related to the concept of mutual heritage. But the recognition that heritage is mutual, does not automatically involve the notion of sharing.

Re-visiting the case studies

It can be argued that the Berlin Brachiosaurus skeleton is part of Tanzanian (natural) history as much as it is part of German (natural) history. It is definitely not considered as shared heritage. Following the method as developed by the Dutch Atlas of Mutual Heritage3 information could be made for interest groups in Berlin, in Tanzania, and elsewhere via the internet. This is often referred to as virtual repatriation. The step from mutual to shared presupposes an active involvement of all parties concerned in decision making processes. An element in this is the full recognition of the cultural biography of the finds.
In Vilnius the issue of ownership seems to be solved: the heritage of the church is returned to its source community. However, who is to be understood as source community here: the archbishopric or the parish of St Philip and St Jacob? It can be argued that in the decision making process concerning the restauration, the icon is alienated from its community of use. The familiar appearance has disappeared, making place of an appearance favoured by the specialists of the museum.
The success of the claim from the parish of Veverská Bitýška may be considered as the recognition of the rights of the source community. Ironically, the painting was not returned to the parish, but is kept (permanently?) in the Diocesan Museum in the centre of the city of Brno.


The aim of the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-confiscated Art is to use provenance research to identity the rightful owners with the purpose of restituting ownership. I do not want to challenge these principles but would advocate a broader understanding (and application) of the museological trends behind the principles. This involves a focus on the process of musealisation and the willingness to share this knowledge with our stakeholders (including the visitors). It also involves new concepts of ownership. The most important principle of all is transparency. Museums should be transparent as to their methods in past and present. Only then museums will be successful in building relationships with society that are based on trust.


Mieke BAL: Telling, Showing, Showing Off. In: Critical Inquiry 18:1992, pp. 556-594.
Mieke BAL: In het museum – hedendaags exhibitionisme. In: J.C.A. van der Lubbe/A.J.A. van Zoest (eds.), Tekens en betekenis. Haarlem 1997, pp. 126-140.
Sarah BYRNE/Anne CLARKE/Rodney HARRISON/Robin Torrence (eds.): Unpacking the collection. Networks of material and social agency in the museum. New York 2011.
Julian DAUM: Warum der weltberühmte Brachiosaurus im Naturkundemuseum in Berlin zu sehen ist. In: Berliner Zeitung 2016, March 10.
Charlotta DOHLVIK: Museums and their voices. A contemporary study of the Benin bronzes. Master’s dissertation, Göteborg University 2006.
Stephen Jay GOULD: Dinosaurs in a Haystack. Reflections in Natural History. London 1996.
Igor KOPYTOFF: The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process. In: Arjun Appadurai (ed.), The social life of things. Commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge 1986, pp. 64-91.
Janet MARSTINE: The contingent nature of the new museum ethics. In: Janet Marstine (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics. Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First-Century Museum. Abbington 2011, pp. 3-25.
Peter VAN MENSCH: The meta-documentary value of collections. In: COMCOL Newsletter 27:2015 (a), pp. 6-7.
Peter VAN MENSCH: Museality at breakfast. The concept of museality in contemporary museological discourse. In: Museologica Brunensia 4,2:2015 (b), pp. 14-19.
Peter VAN MENSCH/Léontine MEIJER-VAN MENSCH: Collecting as intangible heritage. In: Collectingnet Newsletter 9:2010, pp. 2-4.
Peter VAN MENSCH/Léontine MEIJER-VAN MENSCH: New trends in museology – second edition. Celje 2015.
Franziska NEUDERT: Begehrtes Schlüsselwerk. Die Prager Nationalgalerie muss nach langem Rechtsstreit die “Madonna von Eichhorn“ an die Kirche zurückgeben. In: Prager Zeitung 2016, March 10.
Nina SIEGAL: Rijksmuseum removing racially charged terms from artworks’ titles and descriptions. In: New York Times 2015, December 10, ArtsBeat blog.
Michel VAN-PRAËT: Les galeries de paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée – vers une restitution. In: La Revue, Musée des Arts et Métiers 26:1999, pp. 55-57.
Helen WILKINSON: Collections for the Future. Museums Association, London 2005.

1. The International Committee for Collecting.

2. The Church Heritage Museum.

3. The Dutch Atlas of Mutual Heritage.

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