Surrendering to the market?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2005), News, Volume 13

The recent high-profile sale of two iconic documents relating to the 1916 Rising—a Proclamation (in March 2005) and an original copy of Pearse’s surrender document (in May)—became huge media events. Insofar as there was debate, it tended to concentrate on two questions. Would a private sale result in these prized documents being ‘lost to the nation’? If so, why wasn’t the State, via its public institutions, prepared to pay what was necessary to secure them for the nation?
The way these questions are framed poses a simple oppositional relationship between the private market for heritage goods and the State, in which a gain for a private collector is automatically perceived as a loss to the State. Underlying this perception is an assumption that heritage objects are not safe or secure unless held in public collections. Needless to say, the issues involved are more complicated than these relatively narrow questions suggest.
The first thing to recognise is that the State and the private market can, and increasingly must, complement each other in protecting the patrimony. One of the distinguishing features of the times we live in is that they are an ‘age of heritage’, a historically unprecedented era in which the perception of what constitutes valued heritage embraces an ever-widening range of phenomena, from the earliest archaeological evidence to the near-contemporary.
Against this background, it is simply no longer feasible to look to the State to protect the greater proportion of heritage stock. The household goods of our fathers’ and mothers’ generation, and the pop-culture of the 1970s and ’80s, for example, are now eminently collectible. One result of this trend is that museums around the world are experiencing a ‘crisis of collecting’. They cannot go on collecting at the present rate because the costs of conservation and storage alone are becoming insupportable in the context of the overall cost of running museums. Each year museum directors are obliged to carry out the routine budgetary task of scarce resource allocation: deciding how much to spend on buildings, staffing, conservation, exhibitions and other public services, and striking a difficult balance between these competing claims. Until recently, the idea of de-accessioning or disposing of objects from collections was considered virtually anathema. Now it is one of the most hotly debated subjects in the museum world. The emphasis has shifted from encyclopaedic collecting ambitions to qualitative selection (including de-selection) and prudent management of resources. Reflecting this trend, museums have come to recognise that their interventions in the market have to be prudent and highly selective as well.
The existence of a vibrant private market for heritage goods supports rather than inhibits these objectives. A private market ensures that objects purchased are safely conserved in private hands. After all, it is unlikely that someone who has paid €300,000 for a document such as the Proclamation will not take very good care of their investment by conserving it according to the best advice available. By this means one of the chief goals of conservation is achieved: something has been saved so that future generations can exercise an option on it.
Furthermore, to say that an object in private hands, whether in Ireland or overseas, is ‘lost to the nation’ over-dramatises the case. Many owners of historically important collections have proved both generous and patriotic in loaning material to major exhibitions. In 2003, for example, Philip Emmet lent many priceless objects from the family’s collection of memorabilia for Kilmainham Gaol’s bicentenary exhibition on his famous ancestor, Robert. Private owners and public institutions, therefore, are potentially far more mutually supportive than is sometimes assumed when these heated causes célèbres arise. The perceived ‘loss to the nation’ is considerably tempered by the generosity and patriotism of private owners willing to loan objects to public institutions.
You might argue, of course, that the real issue in the case of the Proclamation and the surrender document was the need for the State to intervene in exceptional rather than in all cases. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that at least 25 known Proclamations exist (with four already owned by national institutions), and that several versions of Pearse’s surrender document exist (with three versions already in the National Museum), the problem remains of defining what constitutes exceptional heritage. By definition, all heritage items are unique in some sense; the tough question is that of relative importance. We saw in the Carrickmines case, for example, a wide divergence among professional archaeologists and historians about the relative importance of the site; while one expert was happy to describe it as ‘an Irish Pompeii’, others saw it as far less significant.
But even if we assume for a moment that the exceptional can be clearly identified and agreed upon, the problems do not go away. If the State were obliged to bid for every object or document deemed to be of exceptional national importance, it would very soon find itself having to make potentially astronomical budgetary provisions in order to intervene decisively in the market. For as soon as the State developed a reputation as the bidder of last resort for ‘priceless’ objects, the price of such things would escalate to a point beyond market values, with the State obliged to pay consistently over the odds for them. We come back again to the opportunity cost ssue: would we be genuinely content to see the State pay out millions for exceptional heritage items when the decision to do so has to be weighed in the balance with the funding of health, education and a host of other public welfare issues?
Yet, having acknowledged all this, there is still cause for concern from a public institutional perspective in the way the hype surrounding high-profile sales pushes prices to dramatic and unprecedented levels. It both crudely and subtly affects the public perception of cultural goods and how they are valued. The paradox is contained in the word ‘priceless’. By priceless we generally mean something held in such veneration that no price could, or should, be put on it. When we sell the priceless we invert the meaning: its ‘pricelessness’ becomes a function of its actual price.
The long tradition of donating historically important objects to public institutions is driven by this sense of the price-less. The act of giving asserts that no market can capture the value of the thing given, or that, whatever its market value might be, it is subordinate to the spiritual and communal values which the very act of donation enacts or embodies. The benefits that flow to the museum can be immense. It can build a collection of unique depth and quality without recourse to purchase funds and can concentrate resources on storing, conserving and displaying objects. Donation also asserts public ownership over museums; it means that collections are demonstrably the products of participatory acts of giving—not solely the products of curatorial connoisseurship, but exercises in a collective or communal valuation of heritage. Perhaps most importantly of all, it sets a good example that encourages others to do likewise.
The cause célèbre sale has the opposite effect. It gets people thinking primarily about price values. More and more, museum curators are having to deal with queries directed towards finding out how much an object might be worth with a view to sale rather than donation. Though the ethical code to which most museums subscribe precludes offering a valuation service, valuable staff time is inevitably wasted in dealing politely with queries and determining the true motives of those asking the questions.
And then there is the more interesting philosophical question: why should museum priorities, in any case, be driven by the sense of the exceptional rather than the typical? Shouldn’t our collections be based as much on representative sampling as on the search for the outstanding or exceptional? Think of all the things museums do not show. Think of the twentieth century alone: how well represented in collections are the ordinary lives of our fathers and grandmothers, their working and social lives? What about the poor? Should we be collecting more of this relatively cheap stuff rather than yet more ‘fine’ examples of themes already well represented in collections? These are the kinds of collection policy questions that museum directors with an eye to the inclusiveness (as opposed to the exclusiveness) of their collections are asking. Regrettably, they are not the ones that are likely to be highlighted when the next Proclamation comes up for sale.
In considering these matters in the particular context of recent sales, it is impossible not to be struck by the irony of it all. A piece of paper Pearse scribbled upon in the last throes of insurrection sells 90 years later for an incredible, princely sum. Patriotism is transmuted into ‘patriotica’. Earlier, on Holy Thursday, Pearse had written a cheque drawn on the Hibernian Bank for £3.12s, which was later returned to his mother with the poignant words ‘drawer deceased’ written on it in pencil. How much would that cheque be worth on the open market today? €50,000? €100,000, €300,000? No matter. It is in the Pearse Museum collection, its pricelessness guaranteed for posterity.

Pat Cooke is Chairman of the Irish Museums Association and manager of Kilmainham Gaol and the Pearse Museum.

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