The Northampton Sekhemka statue (image via Wikipedia)

The Northampton Sekhemka, Old Kingdom, Late Dynasty 5 (c. 2400–2300 BCE), probably from Saqqara, Lower Egypt (image via Wikipedia)

The Museums Association (MA), the largest professional membership organization for UK museums and their workers, is planning to revise its ethical guidelines in the hopes of dissuading British institutions from selling off works in their collections, the Independent reported. The move comes after a high-profile and controversial sale by the Northampton Borough Council of a more than 4,500-year-old Egyptian statue of the scribe Sekhemka for £15.8 million (~$24.5m) this past summer. The sale — which broke the world auction record for an ancient Egyptian artwork — was widely condemned and protested by a number of public groups, and prompted the MA to revoke the Northampton Museums‘ accreditation on the grounds that the council had not followed proper deaccessioning guidelines; that unaccredited status then caused the museums to lose out on grants from the national Heritage Lottery Fund.

Regarding deaccessioning, the MA’s Code of Ethics states:

If disposals are being planned and are taking place within the framework of a clear and approved collections development policy, with the intention that the items remain in the public domain and importantly, if the plans are unlikely to damage public trust in museums or if they will actively increase the public benefit derived from museum collections, then there is no need to make contact or use the form.

After the auction, which landed the Sekhemka in the hands of an anonymous buyer, the council said it would use the proceeds to pay for an extension of the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery.

Notwithstanding the case of Northampton, the MA is particularly concerned about museums unloading objects in order to compensate for funding cuts. In an annual survey earlier this year, the MA found that a little more than half of the responding institutions had “experienced a cut to their overall income,” with 32% saying their income had decreased by more than one tenth and 11% saying it had fallen by more than a quarter. Perhaps most alarmingly, “one in 10 responding museums said they had considered selling parts of their collections.”

The MA is now teaming up with the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund, and Arts Council England to consider joint actions to the looming crisis. These include a more stringent ethics code, harsher sanctions for museums that offend, and an official watch list of at-risk collections.

Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...