UNIDROIT implications?

Sven O Kullander ve-sven at NRM.SE
Thu Jul 13 21:14:08 CDT 1995

Having taken part of the UNIDROIT declaration, it is obvious that this item
is a 'tempest in a museum cabinet', or not even that - just a wind carrying
some museum dust with it. Unveilance of what was beneath the dust maybe was
more interesting than the declaration.

The UNIDROIT dectlaration makes clear that only cultural objects are
concerned. The 'science' mentioned in the passing obviously only relates to
Arts, Humanistics, Social, Anthropological and the like Science, i.e. the
science of human expressions, whereabouts and artifacts - not Natural
Science which mainly concerns human-independent expressions of matter. As
can be expected from a document like this it pays more attention to
formalities than to internal consistency - the value aspects attributed to
the stuff concerned are purely non-scientific.

The background relates obviously mainly to ethnographica and war
plunderings. As to natural history specimens, such can be considered of
cultural value. But for what I see, the UNIDROIT declaration does not apply
to natural history specimens in general, except palaeontological specimens
and stuff relating to archaeology. This is an important distinction.

Complete slabs of Archaeopteryx are certainly of immense cultural value as
are artifacts found alongside early hominids. Beetle types are not.

Since someone made the claim that Linnaean specimens (which, in any case,
were not stolen from anyone!) might have to be returned to the United States
(of all places!), this gives me an excellent example to show that the
cultural value of the Linnaean collections is in Sweden, not from wherever
the specimens came. The Linnaean collections (his private, that of King
Adolf Fredrik, and various other little collections) were amassed here in
Sweden and their cultural value derives solely from the cultural importance
of Linnaeus.

The specimens themselves are often in bad condition, lack collecting data,
and are not always types. Some of the material is maintained in London where
they should stay since collections maintained in Sweden are not all being
taken proper care of.  Then the problem is only whether the Linnaean
collections belong to Man's culture or to the Swedish culture only. In the
sense of the lawyers and diplomats of UNIDROIT they belong to Sweden. If you
steal them you must return them not because they are valuable to Mankind but
because they belong to Sweden. And only Sweden can claim the specimens. Then
you should know that the same Swedish administration that sent people to
sign the UNIDROIT convention does not give even half of what that trip cost
to care for those specimens. For what I can see, UNIDROIT does not differ
beteen garbage and useful biological specimens.

Another point of interest is that although the 'Kingdom of Sweden' is listed
amongst participants, the Culture Ministry here is completely unaware of the
UNIDROIT declaration, and although big potatoes from this museum attended
the ICOM meeting in Bergen (which adopted the UNIDROIT declaration without
critical examination), the one I talked to heard of UNIDROIT for the first
time from the TAXACOM message that I forwarded. For what I can see, UNIDROIT
has no backing in the real world and after all it may not get ratified by so
many countries.

For the most part UNIDROIT topics are resolved by national legislation, so
it per se definitely redundant. The export of archaeological objects is
forbidden in all countries I know of. The export of endangered fauna and
flora is also prohibited, with international conventions as a guarantee that
only the really bad guys get away with it. Denmark has an interesting law
pertaining to palaeontological objects, the Danekrae, by which the Danish
State (=The Palaeontological Museum) is guaranteed to select from specimens
collected by amateurs. By letting amateurs keep some stuff, the danes have a
guaranteed supply of both interesting specimens and information about
interesting new localities. This law, of course, pertains to scientific
specimens, not cultural objects. Reasons for not allowing free international
transport of non-endangered, non-unique (palaeontological objects sometimes
are unique) specimens can only be drawn from the dark interiors of some of
us. The collecting itself, however, needs to take some normal social,
psychological considerations, and most nations have a law or two on it.

The unique thing with UNIDROIT is that channels are established by which
States can forward claims on other States, and the other State has a body
available for replying (not necessarily positively!). Still, this will be
mainly, I guess, negotiations about cultural property acquired in war raids
(because a large portion of the signing states bomb each other now and
then), not objects circulating openly in the scientific society. I can see
nothing wrong with that part of the UNIDROIT declaration.

There is still some problem pertaining to the 'ownership' of biological
specimens. For the most part, I believe that scientists working in other
countries, do their work together with local scientists or, when possible,
with the permission of the local government. This matter needs to be
discussed more, and all the prejudices ventilated, because the world is
changing and will not always look familiar to those who believe there is a
First and a Third world (BTW, which one would the USA belong to?), green
letters on a black screen, and that the national border is reflected all the
way to the sky.

All the above are my personal reflections, maybe useful, maybe only a
reaction to reading too many UNIDROIT messages.

Sven O Kullander
Senior Curator - Ichthyology
Department of Vertebrate Zoology
Swedish Museum of Natural History
POB 50007
S-104 05 Stockholm  SWEDEN
Tel +46-8-666 4116 Fax +46-8-666 4212  E-mail: ve-sven at nrm.se
WWW http://www.nrm.se/verte/svenpage.htm

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