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Engaging Ideas

To Have and to Hold?

New Attitudes Toward Art Museum Ethics

This Engaging Idea explores the ethics underlying museums and art collections.


Photo of Elizabeth Campbell


Elizabeth Campbell is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Denver and Director of the Center for Art Collection Ethics.

She is the author of Defending National Treasures: French Art and Heritage under Vichy (Stanford University Press, 2011). Campbell is currently writing a book with support from the United States National Endowment for the Humanities on the recovery of art looted by the Nazis—often from Jewish owners—comparing restitution practices in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. In all three cases, the postwar governments held unclaimed works for display in state-run museums, setting the stage for controversy and cultural property disputes since the 1990's. 


 More on the Subject

  1. Illicit Cultural Property blog 
  2. International Foundation for Art Research
  3. Association for Research into Crimes Against Art
  4. Plundered Art, by the Holocaust Art Restitution Project
  5. NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
  6. Chasing Aphrodite - the hunt for looted antiquities

Questions for personal reflection or group discussion

  1. To what degree do art museums have an ethical responsibility to carry out provenance (ownership) research on new acquisitions and permanent collections?
  2. What should museums do if they discover they are holding stolen art? Does the response change depending on the circumstances of theft and the injured party—a Holocaust victim, Native American tribe, antiquities-rich country like Greece or Syria? How far back in time should they trace theft—the 19th century or earlier?
  3. Should museums proactively search for rightful owners, including heirs of deceased victims of plunder?
  4. What should museum enthusiasts and members do to help support ethical art collection stewardship?

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