We are often asked how the Brooklyn Museum acquired artworks from around the world. Here we address frequently asked questions about the Museum’s history of collecting and discuss actions we’re taking to better understand and share that history.
Why do museums collect?
Modern museums are civic and educational institutions that collect, preserve, display, and interpret antiquities, artwork, and cultural heritage from diverse peoples, places, and time periods. The collections of the Brooklyn Museum are held in trust for the benefit of the public. In engaging our collections, we seek to serve as a forum where art is a powerful force for personal transformation and social change.
The Museum is committed to establishing, preserving, caring for, and documenting its broad and diverse collections, which represent many aspects of the worldwide history of art from ancient times to the present. Although the Museum has collected art for over a century, we continually seek to expand and challenge the traditional art historical canon by including multiple perspectives.
How do works get into museum collections?
Collections come to museums in many ways, including as gifts from donors, purchases using designated funds, or exchanges with other institutions. Like other museums established in the nineteenth century, the Brooklyn Museum acquired a significant portion of its collections at a time when many places and peoples were colonized or otherwise controlled by foreign powers. We acknowledge that some works left their places of origin due to systemic cultural, legal, and economic inequities. Although the Museum collected works following laws and standards in effect at the time, some of the ways the Museum acquired portions of its collection are considered unscrupulous or unethical today.
How can you be sure that works were properly acquired?
One important way we can understand the origins of the Brooklyn Museum’s collections is through provenance research. Provenance, broadly defined as a work’s ownership history since its creation, can suggest a work’s place of origin, determine how long it has been out of the hands of its original maker(s), and track its movement over time. A work’s provenance, or “life story,” is often entwined with complex histories of exchange involving oppressive systems and the inequitable distribution of wealth and power.
Provenance research alone does not answer these questions, nor does it remedy unjust histories of collecting cultural heritage or their ongoing effects on descendant and diasporic communities.
We aim to be responsible stewards of the works in the Museum’s collections. Provenance research enables us to confront our institution’s history and examine how we can move forward as an anti-oppressive and equitable organization. We hope that transparent discussions about provenance provoke open conversations about these important questions and help ensure that museums do not further contribute to the unethical removal of cultural heritage from global communities.
What is provenance?
The term “provenance” refers to the history of a work following its creation, including past owners or caretakers and how it changed hands over time and from place to place. If a work was unearthed during an archaeological excavation, the related term “provenience” refers to the specific location where the work was found, sometimes called a “find-site.”
Why is provenance important?
Provenance research can help determine a work’s authenticity and history, including how it was transferred from its original makers, owners, or caretakers. A gap in a work’s provenance may be cause for concern and merit further investigation.
Provenance research can also help museums share more informed stories about collections with visitors. It can help museums make thoughtful decisions about how to care for works by identifying relevant cultural or religious protocols. It can even help determine whether a work should be returned to its original owners, caretakers, community, or their descendants.
How is provenance research done?
Provenance research works backward in time. At the Brooklyn Museum, it starts with how the work entered the collection (such as through gift or purchase), then investigates how and when the donor or dealer acquired the work, then looks at who possessed it before them, and so on, ideally tracing back to the artist(s), maker(s), or place where it was unearthed.
Provenance researchers examine many sources of information, including auction catalogues, public records, curator correspondence, excavation records, family lore, a work’s materials and construction, oral histories, and even old photographs of people’s living rooms. It is the role of provenance researchers to investigate all possible sources of information, both within and outside museums, to determine what was documented and to critically question what might have been left out of records. Such research requires time (sometimes years), expertise, and resources, as well as a healthy measure of luck.
How is provenance information documented?
Museums usually compile a list of a work’s past owners and information about how or when it changed hands, such as by sale, inheritance, or gift. The Brooklyn Museum is working to improve transparency about provenance in our labels and online collections, which sometimes means admitting that provenance information is not yet documented or that research is ongoing.
Why don’t all works have fully documented provenance?
Provenance research relies on accurate record-keeping each time a work changes hands. Unfortunately, it is often impossible to determine full ownership history from existing sources.
In many cases, evidence of a work’s previous owner or location (such as invoices, receipts, or photographs) is available for only a portion of the work’s existence. Physical records often no longer exist or never existed. Accessing certain sources of information requires time and money for researchers to travel. Sometimes, the necessary archives have yet to be made publicly accessible. Other times, documents require translation. Occasionally, details exist in personal memory, requiring researchers to identify and interview the appropriate person(s). And sometimes, information no longer exists in living memory.
How do we read provenance information?
On its website, the Brooklyn Museum starts provenance entries with the earliest documented owner or caretaker of the work. Ideally, a work’s provenance entry begins with the artist and the work’s date of creation, gift, or purchase:
For works whose history we cannot trace back to an original maker, owner, or caretaker, provenance entries begin with the earliest date the work was known to be in someone’s possession. When the method of transfer is unknown, provenance entries use “acquired by” followed by the name of the relevant person(s):
Each subsequent owner or movement of the work is documented and separated by a semicolon to indicate a change in ownership. When the method of transfer is known, it is included in the provenance chain with language such as “purchased by,” “loaned by,” or “gift of” followed by the name of the relevant person(s):
Any gap in documented provenance is acknowledged as “between [year] and [year], provenance not yet documented”:
What does “provenance not yet documented” mean?
“Provenance not yet documented” means that research has not yet determined the ownership history of the work between two dates or events. Unfortunately, even after thorough research, many works still have incomplete provenance information. All too often, the people with the answers have passed away and left no known record of their collecting.
In the case of archaeological material (works unearthed during an excavation), “archaeological provenance not yet documented” means that there is no recorded archaeological context for the work:
Are provenance sources trustworthy?
Part of a provenance researcher’s due diligence requires critically examining sources to determine their accuracy and reliability. Provenance researchers must read between the lines of what is documented, keeping in mind the potential biases of a source’s time, place, and circumstance. Provenance researchers also try to corroborate documentation from multiple sources. Unfortunately, this is not always possible.
To explain why this is the case, think of a family heirloom or treasured possession. Do you have a receipt for it? If not, do you know from whom it was acquired, by whom, and when? Does it have a story? Can you prove that story happened through photographs or correspondence? Most likely you cannot answer all these questions, but that does not mean the stories did not happen or that the object is not rightfully yours. Therein lies the difficulty of provenance research.
Provenance researchers constantly discover stories whose details are impossible to verify. It is the Brooklyn Museum’s duty to document those stories as transparently as possible, acknowledging both what we know and what we do not know. When information may be incorrect or misleading, we use the words “reportedly,” “possibly,” or “probably” to indicate uncertainty.
Is provenance research biased?
It can be. Historically, museum provenance research and documentation relied on ideas of property that emphasize private or individual ownership of inanimate objects. These assumptions may conflict with concepts of collective ownership, of materials regarded as animate, or of works considered to be divine. Museum provenance research typically prioritizes tangible or written documentation of a work’s history. This tends to privilege societies that are sedentary and literate and disadvantages people who are nomadic or who record histories orally.
The Brooklyn Museum strives to include multiple ways of recording history in provenance research by collaborating with communities of origin and makers’ descendants. To this end, the Museum gives information provided by source communities, including oral histories, equal consideration as that derived from donors and published sources.
What values does the Brooklyn Museum consider in provenance research?
Principles of good faith, due diligence, transparency, and collaboration guide provenance research at the Brooklyn Museum. We seek to honor the wishes of makers, their descendants, and their communities. We welcome cooperation with descendant communities and relevant stakeholders to tell these stories, and encourage anyone with information about a work to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Has the importance of provenance for museums changed over time?
Provenance research has been important for certain collecting areas, such as European painting, for as long as museums have been collecting. However, many other fields of collecting neglected complete provenance research because the place, time, and purpose for which a work was made were deemed more important than its history afterward. Historically, many museum professionals thought that museums’ educational missions and conservation efforts outweighed potential ethical concerns regarding how a work entered the collection. The Brooklyn Museum is no exception.
The commercial art world has at times used provenance as a marketing tool, knowing that the prestige of a former collection can add value. But more typically, art dealers and auction houses have sold pieces without revealing the identity of the previous owners. This confidentiality is not necessarily nefarious, as the reasons for selling may be personal (e.g., financial need, divorce, a death in the family), and it was considered appropriate for the owners to retain their privacy or protect their commercial interests.
Today, those who collect, especially public institutions like museums, have begun to place greater emphasis on provenance and transparency when deciding what to acquire. Gaps in a work’s history, especially when they overlap with periods of political unrest, armed conflict, or contexts of inequitable power dynamics, may raise serious ethical, public policy, and legal concerns.
Why is provenance research a priority now?
In the late twentieth century, academics and activists highlighted the prejudices inherent in many museum practices and encouraged museums to alter those approaches to ameliorate injustices. Museum professionals now understand that in order to educate honestly and to conserve ethically, we must reckon with our institutions’ histories—first by understanding their details, then by sharing what we have learned, and finally by taking measures to make our practices more just. The Brooklyn Museum is now addressing provenance research more comprehensively for all its collections. We recognize that some of this research is long overdue, and we appreciate your patience as we identify and fill in the gaps as best we can.
How often is provenance information updated?
The Brooklyn Museum is committed to accurate provenance information and transparent methods of its documentation for all collection works. This process takes time and is ongoing. Provenance entries may change as new information arises and as our researchers make discoveries.
What has the Brooklyn Museum collected?
The Brooklyn Museum was founded as the Brooklyn Apprentices’ Library in 1823 with a mission to educate the diverse community of Brooklyn. Collecting priorities at the Museum have changed over time as new generations of directors, curators, trustees, and patrons influenced what we preserved and exhibited. In the 1880s, the Museum began acquiring works for a Fine Arts collection, which eventually became what are now the American Art, Decorative Arts, Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Near Eastern Art, and European Art collections. Early Fine Arts acquisitions included European paintings, American furniture, Egyptian antiquities, and Chinese ceramics.
In 1900, the Museum began collecting works made by people from sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, the Islamic world, and the Pacific Islands for an Ethnology collection. This eventually became what are now the Arts of Africa, Arts of the Americas, Arts of Asia, Arts of the Islamic World, and Arts of the Pacific Islands collections. Throughout the early twentieth century, many in the museum field believed that people subject to colonial occupation were losing their cultural distinctiveness and that museums needed to preserve their material culture to prevent it from disappearing entirely. This derogatory notion failed to recognize the agency, presence, and resilience of people living under colonialism. Although collecting strategies today differ drastically from those of the past, the racist, classist, and colonial legacies of historical collecting practices continue to affect our work at the Museum.
Until the 1940s, the Museum also collected animal, plant, and rock specimens from around the world for a Natural Sciences collection. However, most of this collection has since been disposed of or sold.
How did the artworks get here?
Each work in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection has a unique history. Like many U.S. museums created in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Brooklyn Museum formed its collections by acquiring through the global art market, mostly through gifts and purchases.
In the early twentieth century, the Museum also sponsored collecting expeditions around the world, sending its curators to purchase materials for research and display. As a result of the structural racism, sexism, and classism of the time, many of these early American curators were college-educated, affluent, white American men who accessed resources to explore the art and histories of cultures to which they did not belong. In some cases, curators purchased works directly from the people who made them or commissioned new works for the Museum’s collections. In other cases, curators purchased materials through local art dealers, curio shops, or other vendors. Many of the people from whom curators purchased artworks faced financial difficulties that compelled them to sell. The Museum also sponsored archaeological excavations in places such as Egypt, sometimes negotiating deals with colonial governments so that certain finds would enter the Museum’s collections.
In the 1940s, the Museum slowed collecting expeditions and increasingly relied on the generosity of private collectors to offer works as gifts. The majority of the Museum’s collections have come through the hands of these donors. Unfortunately, most of these collectors did not keep detailed records about the provenance of works in their possession, or such documentation never existed.
Does the Brooklyn Museum collect differently now?
The Museum’s collecting standards and policies have changed dramatically since its founding, and our collecting strategies will continue to evolve. Today, our collecting policies ensure that we acquire works legally, ethically, and with a more rigorous standard of documented provenance. However, we cannot ignore that historical collecting strategies have dispossessed global communities of their cultural heritage, often at the hands of those who have benefited from imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism.
Are any works in the Museum’s collection stolen?
It is against the Brooklyn Museum’s policies to collect, hold, or acquire any works that have been stolen. When we discover or have reason to suspect that a work has been stolen, the Museum will work in good faith to contact and return the work to relevant heirs, beneficiaries, or communities. However, we acknowledge that this question cannot always be answered and almost always requires in-depth provenance research.
Provenance research has shown that although the Museum’s collections were legally acquired under the laws and ethics of the time, the manner in which certain works left their places of origin could be considered questionable or even unethical today. This is particularly true of works acquired from peoples and places that have been—or still are—subject to rule by outside powers. Colonial governments routinely inventoried, promoted, and codified the export of cultural goods. As such, research about these periods rarely exposes transactions that were illegal at the time. Instead, it often reveals circumstances of removal formalized by political and legal systems that today are considered unjustified or unethical.
Even when works left places under colonial rule, the methods by which they left were diverse. Sometimes colonial officials removed works from their places of origin during occupation forcibly or without the consent of original community authorities. Sometimes community members sold works in response to economic inequality, cultural erasure, and societal upheaval—common effects of colonial occupation that persist long after it has ended. Sometimes creators made and willingly sold works specifically for foreign trade. Sometimes collectors acquired works both lawfully and ethically, as part of new trade routes and intercultural exchange. In many cases, however, important, sacred, or ceremonial works were removed to museums for study and display against the wishes of original caretaking communities.
How is cultural heritage protected?
Today, there are numerous state and federal laws, national ownership laws, international conventions, industry guidelines, and best practices protecting antiquities, archaeological heritage, and cultural heritage.
Several international conventions recognize the importance of world cultural heritage and denounce modern threats to the preservation, protection, and existence of cultural heritage, including the destruction of cultural heritage in zones of armed conflict.
While these conventions are not legally binding unless signatory countries turn them into national law, the Brooklyn Museum is committed to abiding by them and all applicable laws to the fullest extent.
Has the Museum ever returned anything to its place of origin?
Yes. If provenance research reveals that a work was taken against the will of its previous owners or caretakers during war or conflict, we will work to return it to a rightful recipient if one exists. For example, in response to decades of Indigenous activism and the passage of laws like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the Brooklyn Museum has prioritized repatriating ancestors (human remains) to their communities.
For a list of works repatriated through NAGPRA proceedings, see “NAGPRA repatriations to date” below. The Museum has also repatriated belongings, sacred and ceremonial works, and antiquities to tribal and international governments and cultural institutions.
How does the Museum return or repatriate works?
The Brooklyn Museum responds to repatriation requests through laws like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and has begun to initiate conversations with communities to whom NAGPRA does not apply. Nevertheless, returning works requires time and consideration to ensure the appropriate voices are heard and the wishes of the originating community are respected. The process usually involves removing a work from the Museum’s collections (a process known as deaccessioning) and transferring legal ownership to the rightful owner(s), community, or government.
What are the legacies of colonialism in collecting and what is the Museum doing to address them?
The Brooklyn Museum acknowledges that the legacies of some of our collecting practices have had adverse effects on many and have given us a sometimes unearned privilege to care for and interpret global art. We are working to remedy some of those inequalities with community stakeholders worldwide.
We propose to address these inequalities in part by researching and sharing information about the provenance of works collected during colonial occupations. As we gather more information about the Museum’s role in colonial-era collecting, and about works acquired from colonial contexts, we will make the information public through gallery signage, social media, and public programming. If research suggests that a work was acquired in ways that were unethical or without the consent of historical owners, the possibility of restitution or repatriation may be discussed with the work’s original owners, caretakers, or their descendants.
We cannot erase the ugly history and ongoing effects of colonialism, but we are committed to making them part of the conversation when sharing our collections with audiences. We acknowledge the living and intangible cultural heritage of global communities and seek to engage those communities as stewards of their own cultures and histories. We accept that we still have a great deal to learn and a long way to go to change old habits and institute new practices. We are humbled by this responsibility, and we welcome input on how we can do a better job.
How does the Museum conduct provenance research for antiquities?
Most ancient works have survived because they were buried for millennia and later unearthed. The precise location and environment of a work’s excavation are valuable pieces of evidence that help determine its age, makers, and purpose. This information is recorded only when archaeologists conduct official excavations. However, many ancient works have been collected under other circumstances. Like many museums, the Brooklyn Museum houses both documented and undocumented archaeological works.
Antiquities provenance research is often complicated by centuries or millennia of inscrutable history. Many ancient works were moved to different geographic locations in antiquity, before they were discovered by modern archaeologists or collectors. Moreover, because political entities and boundaries change over time, ancient places or boundaries do not usually correspond to those of today. These factors make determining accurate provenance and identifying possible source communities or places of origin even more difficult.
Around the world, thousands of archaeological sites await the day when archaeologists have the time, permission, and resources to study them. Museums work to discourage the looting of these sites by refusing to acquire or engage with works that appear to be recently or illegally unearthed. The Brooklyn Museum applies rigorous criteria to all possible acquisitions of antiquities.
What is the Museum doing to address works taken during the Nazi era?
From 1933 to 1945, the Nazi-led forces of Germany seized thousands of works of art and forced numerous European private collectors, most of them Jewish, to abandon their treasures or to sell them at a considerable loss before being forced from their homes. Museums sometimes acquired such pieces through the international art market, often many years later, without knowing their full history or the conditions under which the works left their owners. Today, museums in many countries are examining their collections to determine whether any works might have traded hands during this period and therefore need closer examination to determine whether the owner was coerced into relinquishing them.
It is important to note that not all works that fit these criteria were necessarily stolen. Rather, the criteria help us flag those works for which provenance is incomplete and therefore open to scrutiny. If research determines that a work may have been stolen, previous owners or their descendants may make a claim to have the work returned to them. To date, no claims have been made to works of art in the Brooklyn Museum’s collections.
What is NAGPRA and how does it affect collections of Native American material?
Historically, European and U.S. museums, universities, and collectors sought ancestors (human remains) for study and display. Around the world, archaeologists, anthropologists, museum collectors, and private individuals frequently unearthed Indigenous burial sites without the consent of community authorities and removed ancestors and the belongings with which they were buried. Many Indigenous ancestors and their funerary objects remain in museum collections around the world.
The Brooklyn Museum acknowledges the importance of NAGPRA to address some of the unethical collecting practices historically undertaken against Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian peoples since the colonization and ongoing occupation of ancestral homelands. While it is true that repatriation claims result in the loss of Museum works, NAGPRA visits have spurred invaluable communication and collaboration between Museum staff and Indigenous community representatives. Native delegations have been generous with their knowledge; have suggested respectful methods for storing, handling, and exhibiting works; and have contributed greatly to collective knowledge about the Museum’s collections. Such cooperation leads to deeper understandings between the Museum and Indigenous peoples and results in more thoughtful presentations of our collections to visitors.
For more information about NAGPRA claims, consultations, and repatriation, contact Nancy Rosoff, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Curator, Arts of the Americas, at Nancy.Rosoff@brooklynmuseum.org.