The role of museum and cultural heritage professionals in the fight against illicit trafficking

On 4 and 5 October 2021, a UNESCO/ICOM Workshop, supported by the European Union, discussed the role of European museums and cultural heritage professionals in fighting illicit trafficking of cultural property. With reference to the international legal framework, in particular the UNESCO 1970 Convention and the UNESCO 2015 Museum Recommendation the capacity-development workshop addressed topics ranging from collection management and preventive conservation; good practice and tools to promote due diligence and provenance research; cooperation between museums and law enforcement agencies; and the importance of international cooperation and education.

Participants underlined the importance of inter- and cross-disciplinary cooperation, calling on museums and cultural heritage institutions to provide their expertise to operations of law enforcement, customs and judiciary services. The Cultural Heritage Protection unit of the Italian Carabinieri, and the cooperation mechanism in the Netherlands, were used to demonstrate that such complementarity can foster successful action to counter and solve cases of illicit trafficking. For all professionals alike, technological tools such as INTERPOL’s ID-Art mobile application allow ad-hoc documentation and sharing of information.

With an inside perspective, museum professionals delineated their commitment to applying due diligence in their respective collections, in line with the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums. A thorough inventory system and attentive management of museum collections are not only key to securing cultural objects, but also to applying ethical standards through provenance research.

Participants highlighted the key role of museums for raising awareness and educating a broad public. Higher education courses are available through UNESCO Chairs and UNESCO’s Unitwin network along with lifelong professional development offers by ICOM and other specialized organizations and networks.

Having museum and heritage expertise has also proven beneficial – if not essential – in ensuring the assessment of export and import certificates at national level, relevant for the EU Directive on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State (2014/60/EU), and in the future, of the EU Regulation on the introduction and the import of cultural goods (2019/880).

The UNESCO/ICOM capacity development workshop is part of the ongoing EU/UNESCO project “Inter-regional and crosscutting action aiming to strengthen the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property”. With over 130 attendees, the workshop attracted an interested public in and well beyond Europe. The next workshops in the project series will focus on the implementation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions in partner countries of the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI) South (28 October 2021), and address the role of the banking sector in the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property.