in Museum 

Legal Aspects of Ownership: Contrasting Cultural and Biological Collections

Sherry Hutt


The museum world is currently directing a great deal of attention to the provenance of collections, that is, the route by which the items came into the possession of the museum. Throughout the art world there have been questions concerning the legitimacy of art collected during World War II and the eventual bequests to museums. Native Americans have questioned the collection of human remains, grave goods and other cultural items, by the government, which now rest in museums. 

The National Museum of the Native American will soon open in a climate where museums are increasingly faced with an obligation to assess their rights of ownership in their collections. No museum with a substantial collection of cultural and/or biological items is immune from the need to take an introspective look at their collection, from the standpoint of provenance, that is the virtue of institution ownership of the items accessioned. Repatriation legislation and the prominence now being given to examination of collections of war-time acquisitions, point to a need for museums to have in place a method to assess their ownership in the items in their collection. It is the aim of this study to arm museum professionals with a decision-making tool, which will allow well reasoned, proactive determinations to take place, rather than an expensive and haphazard venture forced upon the institution by litigation.

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