By Jack Ashby, on 4 July 2011
Is it acceptable to sell natural history objects?
Several months ago I had a number of phone and email conversations with a researcher developing a new TV programme in which people sell unusual possessions to art dealers in a Dragon’s Den style format. She wanted my help in finding objects or people with collections that could appear on the show to be sold. I shuddered.
I explained that, according the Museums Association’s Code of Ethics, museums selling their collections into private is very much frowned upon. She changed tack – she had hit upon the entirely correct notion that people who work in museum are themselves extremely fond of collecting. As I say – this is true – we are terrible at throwing things away, and what’s more, being expert curators in our fields, we know what things are worth keeping (and I don’t just mean financially). In the end I told her that none of UCL Museums would contemplate selling things in such a forum, but eventually agreed I would send her email on to my colleagues “in case they knew anyone who had something unusual in a cupboard at home”.
This programme is now on air – it’s called Four Rooms on Channel Four. I’ve watched a few episodes and I must admit I find it compelling viewing. Individuals pitch their unusual items – plasticine traveling menageries, Vivienne Westwood hats, gold dentures, Tracey Emin prints – to the four dealers, then go to them one at a time and receive offers for them. It’s a clever format – they have to reject an offer before going to the next dealer, and can’t go back. They often end up rejecting an offer which is higher than the ones they get in subsequent rooms. While it’s reminiscent of Dragons Den, the dealers are extremely genial.
This all sounds well and good, unless it comes to natural history. Art has always been traded by individuals – art has economic value – it’s more or less built for it. When you begin assigning financial value to animal specimens you are devaluing it in any real sense.
What follows here is what I think, it isn’t the official view of UCL Museums & Collections, although UCL encourages responsible debate around these issues.
In Episode Four a young zoology graduate sold a taxidermy leatherback turtle for £1250. Leatherbacks are listed as Critically Endangered by the International Conservation Union, and are on Appendix I (the highest) of the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This means it has the strictest possible controls and becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to undertake commercial activities (including sale, or for that matter film it for entertainment) or cross international borders with leatherback material. This animal is so endangered that there are international laws to protect it.
While there are antiques derogations to these laws, the legal or ethical side of selling such material is not covered at all by this programme. The problem with selling animals is that it perpetuates a market for their continued sale – including those killed for the purpose – irrespective of legality. This programme makes people think it’s acceptable to treat animal remains as commodities, and by putting a (high) price on their heads, massively devalues them. I think it would make an interesting addition to the programme if they were to include some aspect of this debate. Four Rooms should address this issue.
Now, I, like most of my natural history colleagues, have paid money for objects in our personal collections. I won’t pretend that this is ethically unquestionable, but I’ve never bought a specimen from an animal not extinct – just fossils. This is ethically questionable because as soon as a fossil enters private hands it is lost to science. I’d be keen to hear your thoughts, but I don’t lose sleep at night about the kind of fossils I buy being unavailable to palaeontological research. I’m really just talking about things that if I wanted to acquire for the Grant Museum I easily could – ammonites, common bony fish, trilobites and the like. I don’t think it’s in the same league as endangered turtles. Or indeed, the dinosaur egg sold on Four Rooms. Such fossils have massive potential value to science.
Talking of selling natural history objects, I find the insects and arachnids pinned in frames or embedded in resin that you can buy at Covent Garden Market, for example (or in fact a couple of museum shops I’ve visited round the world) as distasteful as Four Rooms. Is hanging a dead buttefly on your wall any more acceptable than wearing fur? Where do these specimens come from? I once heard of a market dealer who explained that it was ok, because after their rainforest habitat was cut down, they were gathered up as they didn’t have a home to go to. Well, that sets my mind at ease. I’ll have three scorpions and an atlas moth please.
And don’t get me started on Four Room‘s third episode, when they tried to sell a piece of human skin preserved in fluid.