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C4’s Four Rooms: Fun but unethical

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.

9 Responses to “C4’s Four Rooms: Fun but unethical”

  • 1
    IanVisits wrote on 4 July 2011:

    There is a counter argument that by putting a very high price on an animal, you create an incentive for the local human population to protect and encourage increases in the population of that endangered animal.

    If you can (hypothetically) create a situation where the population increased by 3 for every one shot/sold, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

    On the wider topic of selling artefacts, I am actually uncomfortable with the notion that museums shouldn’t sell things.

    When you consider that typically around 90% of a collection will spend its entire life in a warehouse, and that many collections are made up of multiple versions of the same item, is it really that essential that the museum holds onto them?

    If a venue has a dozen similar skulls, Canopic jars, whatever, what is wrong with taking a few of the least desirable from a scientific point of view and selling them to raise funds to buy more interesting artefacts?

    Very carefully of course.

    At least then the item in question is on a shelf in a home being admired than locked in a dusty cupboard and ignored.

    I can’t really see how that diminished science, it adds to it.

  • 2
    Jack Ashby wrote on 4 July 2011:

    Hi Ian
    Thanks so much for commenting – you make some interesting points. I completely agree that if a museum has 90% of its collection in store and it isn’t ever going to be used, there is no point in the museum keeping it. However, I would argue (as does the Museums Association) that sale isn’t the best option. At UCL Museums we have been rather proactive on this topic and undertaken a major collections review (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/review). One aspect of this is looking at whether we have things we should dispose of. The most ethical means of disposal is usually transfer to another museum for free, if that museum can make better use of the collection.

    With respect to your idea of building up a population in which some are sacrificed for commerce (like farming), I’m afraid I don’t agree, mainly. There are some instances where allowing sustainable trade has stopped a population from declining due to improved local management, but the examples are rare (e.g. alligator farming in Florida and I think there was a turtle egg harvest permitted by an indigenous community, but I can’t remember where (I have the reference at home)). Also, with an animal on CITES Appendix I, such activity would be illegal.

  • 3
    Debbie wrote on 5 July 2011:

    It seems like ethics around the sale of fossils and zoological material has finally made some headrooms into public consciousness if last night’s New Tricks (BBC1) was anything to go by. The whole plot hinged around illegal sales of fossils from China and elsewhere and the involvement (or not) of museum staff.
    Admittedly the uptight Keeper, slimy museum director, passionate activist cum curator (who headed up dead), various beautiful assistants and connected shenanigans owes more to Giles Waterfield’s Hound in the Left-Hand Corner (2003) than my experience of museums. But hey, may be more people will be interested in the ethics of sales, the stories of objects and how they came to be where they are.
    It isn’t just that museums have lots of objects that may or may not be on display, it’s the information (environmental, the provenance, archaeological etc) that comes with them that adds to our understanding of the objects, history and the world around us.
    (From the Petrie Bunker)

  • 4
    ThatGuy wrote on 8 July 2011:

    “as soon as a fossil enters private hands it is lost to science” – are you saying that science doesn’t happen in private collections?

  • 5
    Jack Ashby wrote on 8 July 2011:

    Hi ThatGuy, you’re right – it is inaccurate to say that science doesn’t ever happen in private collections. I do know of a couple of people who have amazing collections that do publish heavily – the “gentleman naturalists” of today. However, they are very much in control of the science that gets done, and, while that is to some extent also true of museums, it is not at the same level. For example, if someone was studying leatherback turtles they could go on the Grant Museums online catalaogue, see what specimens we have, and then arrange to come and visit. In a private collection, how would anyone know that that specimens exist in order to study them?
    When a specimen is sold as art, however, I doubt that much science will be done on it.

    There is a valid point to make, however, about the trust that is placed on museums. Occasionally, museums do close and due decisions made by people too short-sighted to care, collections are literally skipped. In this way private collections can last longer than museum collections.

  • 6
    richard newman wrote on 2 August 2011:

    i disagree completely with your argument – a similar one holds sway with the rspb who have banned any real animal objects from nature tables…
    but most, if not all, serious naturalists & conservationists started out collecting wildlife – dead and alive – and had their first taste of what it was through captive or dead specimens – by getting close to wildlife the general public can recognise how amazing it is and how it needs protecting. there are very stringent laws in place preventing the trade in endangered species and with the exception of a handful of species like rhinos the threat to animals comes from habitat deprivation not the wildlife trade, indeed most game animals in africa are preserved in private hunting reserves where small amounts are shot by western hunters for vast amounts of money thus making the conservation of wild animals more lucrative for the landowner than farming cattle/growing maize. closer to home the new forest is once of the most unspoilt and wildlife rich environments in europe and has been preserved for almost a thousand years as a hunting preserve. how anyone in their right mind takes pleasure from killing an animal, stuffing it and sticking it on their wall beggars belief, but hunting is probably the most powerful force for wildlife conservation there is. a fact recognised by all the major conservation charities worldwide – eg save the rhino that gets considerable financial support from safari club international – a hunters pressure group….

  • 7
    Jack Ashby wrote on 3 August 2011:

    Hi Richard
    I absolutely agree with you when you say that “by getting close to wildlife the general public can recognise how amazing it is and how it needs protecting”, but I don’t think that it follows that people should therefore be able to buy endangered animals as art or souvenirs. Like you say, most naturalists, me included, started off collecting things. While there is a wider debate about the ethics of this (Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods” is excellent), it does have value. But isn’t that where museums and local wildlife reserves come in?
    My main point was that Four Rooms should be raising these issues – which as we can see from the comments are far from straightforward. And that failing to raise it will convey that message that animal remains should be seen to have economic value. They should also have mentioned the fact that selling a modern specimen would have been illegal.
    I did say that some examples of sustainable harvest do exist, but I don’t agree that “hunting is probably the most powerful force for wildlife conservation there is”. And I really hope that most conservation charities wouldn’t agree either. The IUCN includes “Overexploitation” (explicitly including the wildlife trade) in its Classification of Direct Threats (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodiversity#Threats) and there are many animals which are killed for souvenirs or body parts, not just rhinos. Turtles are certainly one of them. Maintaining a market for this material inevitably promotes poaching.
    Also, I think I’m right in saying that the RSPB no longer has that policy – they have begun working closely with a number of museums, ours included.
    Thanks for commenting. The debate isn’t straightforward and opinions among conservationists will vary. I think this is one of the most interesting things that many people don’t realise – while conservationists have the same end goal, there is a lot of heated disagreement about how to get there.

  • 8
    How To: Be a Bad Zoologist | UCL UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 3 October 2013:

    […] put it on your mantlepiece, and don’t mention it to a soul. Or you could flog it to another private collector, just so long as it never sees the light of day, or the inquisitive eye of an […]

  • 9
    Do Dodo Bones Belong in a Museum? | UCL UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 14 November 2013:

    […] It Should be in a Museum: For Science This is the reaction I got on Twitter when discussing this story, and it seems reasonable. Valuable natural history specimens that aren’t in museums are lost to science, as I have argued before when discussing Channel 4′s Four Rooms. […]

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