Why are museum documentation and inventories so important in dealing with emergency situations?
Egypt has recently witnessed a period of intense civil turmoil that culminated in a huge political revolution, which is causing massive uncertainties in the international political landscape. During the unrest several museums and archaeological depots were reported to have been attacked. Certain objects of unique historical importance have been reported to have disappeared from the Cairo Museum; an entire inventory check of the collection was made after the break-in. The Museum took the crucial first step to ensuring the speedy and rightful recovery of the objects- identifying what was stolen through the use of Museum’s documentation system.
The UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, states that it prohibits "the import of cultural property stolen from a museum or religious or secular public monuments or similar institution in another State Party […] provided that such property is documented as appertaining to the inventory of that institution" (art. 7b(i)). In layman’s talk, if the objects in question are not recorded in national inventories, the State faces severe difficulties in claiming for the return of objects which were illegally acquisitioned.
It is important to highlight that many museums around the world are not sufficiently prepared; so when suddenly faced with the unforeseeable, such as the political upheaval in Egypt– the safety of historical objects are put into severe jeopardy. In museums, where documentation is non-existent or incomplete, the necessary tools needed to identify whether the object has been stolen are absent, meaning the situation becomes uncertain as to whether the object has been stolen or merely lost within the collection. Also, objects not registered in a coherent system of documentation are far easier to steal. UNESCO advocates the absolute need for rigorous museum documentation systems, to prevent collections from becoming worthless. The recently launched UNESCO’s on-line 'RE-ORG' platform focuses on the importance of collection documentation and storage management. Hopefully, there is silver lining to the tragic story of Egypt and its unique cultural heritage and the international museum community will finally awake up to the absolute necessity to be proactive in preserving and conserving their collections.
Contact information: Ms Nao Hayashi, Programme Specialist for Europe, Asia and the Pacific, UNESCO Section for Museums and Cultural Objects,