A group of Smithsonian scholars and museum peers have come together to produce an issue of Curator: The Museum Journal exclusively focused on ivory. The journal, published quarterly since 1958, reaches 2,800 subscribers and invites museum professionals, researchers, and students to explore and debate the urgent issues shaping the museum field.
Guest editors Scott Miller, Deputy Under Secretary for Collections and Interdisciplinary Support, Cheryl Braunstein of the National Zoo, and Marjorie Trusted, Senior Curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, contributed to the issue and secured the cooperation of 24 contributors. Additional Smithsonian contributors include Richard Kurin, Ambassador at Large; Madelyn Shaw, National Museum of American History; and Barbara Stauffer, National Museum of Natural History.
The ivory issue discusses threatened African and Asian elephants but also highlights the role of historic ivory works of art and how museums might engage visitors on the topic of ivory. The special focus issue was triggered, in part, by stricter regulations in May 2016 that made it illegal to import any ivory into the U.S. Contributors grapple with the need for more effective measures to preserve elephants while also protecting and treasuring ivory in historical contexts. Director Emerita Johnnetta Betsch Cole, for example, examines the issue through the lens of the National Museum of African Art which has strategically used historic ivory within exhibitions to inspire dialogue about current policy and conservation challenges. The double issue is available via open access for all articles.
The Elephant in the Room
At the 2016 American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and Expo, a multi-disciplinary group of museum professionals came together to discuss the topic “The Elephant in the Room: What Can We Do with Our Ivory?” The session speakers provided an overview of the stricter rules and the evolving attitudes that are challenging museums that have ivory in their collections. Among the issues that were addressed: Can these institutions continue to accession ivory? Can ivory be loaned or used in traveling exhibits? Are resources available to determine if an object truly includes ivory? How can we provide interpretive context to the poaching crisis? Click the link above for a summary of the session and for a list of resources that were provided to conference attendees.
Smithsonian and the U.S. Government
There is a crisis in wildlife trafficking globally, and the federal government is responding in various ways following President Obama's Executive Order in 2014. The Smithsonian has multiple interests in ivory, from working with law enforcement agencies in the forensic analysis of ivory, to conducting field projects in conservation biology, and by housing and displaying many historic art and culture objects made from ivory.
The Office of the Deputy Undersecretary for Collections and Interdisciplinary Support (DUSCIS) has been involved in a discussion about how the Smithsonian manages ivory objects, and most importantly, how it creates educational opportunities to combat wildlife trafficking today. At the same time, the Smithsonian strives to appreciate the cultural and historical importance of past uses of ivory.
DUSCIS is working across all the science, history, art and culture museums and research units on possible future programming about ivory.
"The Big, the Bad, and the Beautiful"
On May 7, 2015 more than 125 people gathered at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo to discuss their research and to share sometimes differing perspectives on the timely and often sensitive topic of the conservation of elephants and the stewardship of ivory in multiple material culture contexts from across the Smithsonian. Click to read a summary of the Smithsonian Material Culture Forum’s 99th meeting, “The Big, the Bad and the Beautiful."