UNIDROIT implications?

Sven O Kullander ve-sven at NRM.SE
Fri Jul 14 19:42:44 CDT 1995

Gary Noonan wrote:

>>        UNIDROIT does apply to biological specimens.
>>        I downloaded the UNIDROIT document from the World Wide Web site that
>>Peter  Rauch gave in his recent message
>>(http://www.city.ac.uk/artspol/unidroit.html). I downloaded the document
>>with Netscape and deleted excess carriage returns. The document took about
>>10 pages to print out. It people want, I can send an E-mail message to
>>Taxacom with the full UNIDROIT text. I already have the text in E-mail form
>>because I sent it to curators at my museum.
>>        The text makes it clear that animals and plants are included. Below
>>please find article 2 that states that the UNIDROIT Convention includes
>>categories listed in the Annex to the document. Also below is the first part
>>of the annex.  The annex phrase
>>"specimens of fauna, flora" certainly seems to apply to animals and plants.
>>Article 2
>>For the purposes of this Convention, cultural objects are those which, on
>>religious or secular grounds, are of importance for archaeology,
>>prehistory, history, literature art or science and belong to one of the
>>categories listed in the Annex to this Convention.
>>Annex I
>>[Definitions of Cultural Property under the Convention]
>>(a) Rare collections and specimens of fauna, flora, minerals and anatomy,
>>and objects of palaeontological interest;

The cultural differences are indeed greater than I imagined! We read the
same text the same way and come to very different conclusions. (And, Gary -
did I not give examples of what I understand the Convention deals with,
precisely from animals and plants.)

The UNIDROIT convention covers not only museums, but their holdings seem to
be the main concern of this discussion, so let me stay with that.

There are so many natural history museums that have mainly or only research
collections. And also obviously active and concerned researchers and curators.

But there are others, especially in Europe, whose collections include items
of value not only to the natural sciences but also to less easily grasped
dimensions of the quality of human life. Taken as a whole (not only Article
2 and Annex I, paragraph (a)!) the UNIDROIT convention gives guidelines on
international negotiations on stolen material of that particular category of
animal and plant objects. The curators of those museums, unfortunately, have
not been so active in the UNIDROIT debate.

My museum is a typical institution where what could seem like real work is
hard to get to because whenever you find something half-rotten in a corner
it requires a month of search though documents to make sure it is not
something of 'immense cultural value' that fell out of Linnaeus' pocket (or
that of some internationally less well known culturally important person).
But why complain, museums are for storing objects for a wide variety of uses.

As an example of why I consider the expression 'Rare collections and
specimens of fauna....', etc., to relate to collections or specimens of
cultural value in the first place, and by any sense of reason not to every
possible plant or animal specimen, please check out Appendix 1, '(i) postage
stamps, revenue and similar stamps, singly or in collections'. Here, they do
not even write 'rare'. To me it seems unlikely that this convention deals
with every stolen stamp or itself makes border crossings of stamps illegal.
Thus, in my view, the convention does not put cultural value on scientific
specimens of animals and plants, but as I already pointed out, some museum
specimens have undoubted cultural value and the convention clearly applies
to those specimens.

There are obvious problems with the UNIDROIT Convention. Those 'diplomats'
that put it together seem to have been so deeply rooted in perceiving
cultural objects as artifacts or natural history oddities, that no
distinction was made to exclude the objects of history-less collections of
many more modern natural history institutions. If this conveys much of cost
or other disadvantage to 'innocent' collections remains to see, but as it is
the convention sort of labels museums overall as store-rooms of stolen
property. We do not want this stamp. We have enough problems already to
justify our existence to the public.

Sven O Kullander
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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