Ethics: Is it acceptable to use illicit material for academic research?

This ethics question was originally posed by Caitlin Griffiths of the Museums Association in September 2006. I was undertaking continuing professional development for my AMA (Associateship of the Museums Association) at the time and felt, with my role in both academic research and heritage, that I had strong views on the subject. My response was published in the October 2006 issue of Museums Journal. I was also undertaking my PhD at the time.

Question: Although it is clearly unacceptable to acquire or display illicit material, is it acceptable to use this material for academic research?

Originally published in: Comment (ethics): ‘Although it is clearly unacceptable to acquire or display illicit material, is it acceptable to use this material for academic research?’, Museums Journal, 105 (10) (October 2006).

My response

If it is morally unacceptable for a museum to acquire and display
illicit objects then it is likewise unacceptable to conduct academic
research on them. If the tide of ‘trade’ in illegally acquired
objects is to be stopped, or at least allayed, then researchers and
universities must unequivocally take the ethical higher ground. There
is no reason why academic research needs to be carried out at any
cost, devoid of any social and political (small ‘p’) responsibilities.
Academic institutions and museums should, in any case, work more
closely together than they currently seem to. Those who have, have
shown how academic research can help trace the rightful location of a
cultural artefact, whether a painting spoliated during World War II
(1939-45) or ancient funerary objects from an Iraqi museum. This may
be the only case for allowing scholars to work on certain objects of
known or suspected illegal origin. Even humanities academic research these days
requires commitments to certain ethical standards by funding bodies.
If it is not already, I suggest that funding bodies join the cause of
putting an end to the trade in illegally-acquired artefacts by
requiring a commitment from academics to report suspect material to
its holding institution and omit them from their research programmes
altogether.

Tehmina Goskar
Centre for Antiquity and the Middle Ages
University of Southampton

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