Collection Research

The staff of the RISD Museum stewards works of art representing diverse cultures, from ancient times to the present. The Museum carefully considers the material conditions and ownership history of its collections, supported by archival, scientific, and humanities-based research. This research is often conducted in partnership with artists and scholars working in related fields and in consultation with members of the cultural communities from which the objects originated. The online collection is a living document, and the RISD Museum is committed to new modes of discovery, collaboration, and knowledge creation.

Conservation

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Nazi-Era Provenance

With 175 other museums in the United States, the RISD Museum is a participating institution in the American Alliance of Museums Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal, a database established in 2006 to help researchers identify works of art that might have been confiscated by the Nazis and never restituted to their legal owners. In order to facilitate this research, NEPIP provides a searchable registry of objects currently in U.S. museum collections that “were created before 1946 and acquired after 1932, underwent a change of ownership between 1932 and 1946, and were or might reasonably be thought to have been in Continental Europe between those dates.” This broad inclusion is intended to ensure that all stages of ownership can be appropriately reviewed, encouraging the establishment of more accurate and complete provenance.

Descriptive summaries of 358 works from RISD Museum collections that fall into these categories are posted on the NEPIP website, where they may be searched by artist, title, or keyword. The entire list of RISD Museum submissions may also be viewed in the Participating Museums section by entering “Rhode Island School of Design” in the Museum Name field.

Provenance records will be updated as information becomes available. Researchers are encouraged to request images of particular works of art and specific details of provenance by contacting provenance@risd.edu.

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act

The RISD Museum continues to research objects in its holdings that may be subject to the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). In 1993, the Museum submitted summaries of its Native American objects to tribes across the U.S. and to the National Park Service (NPS), listed online here. The RISD Museum holds no Native American human remains nor any known associated funerary objects. Collaborating with a consortium of New England museums, the Museum was awarded and completed a federal NAGPRA grant to document its holdings in 1996 and 1997. Since 1993, the RISD Museum has held discussions regarding its holdings with 38 Native American tribes, answering questions, providing documentation, and hosting visits. The Museum continues to research its collections and welcomes queries from tribes regarding any objects that are or are suspected to be subject to NAGPRA. Any questions regarding Native American objects in the RISD Museum collections or the Museum’s efforts in regard to NAGPRA may be directed to provenance@risd.edu.

Restitution of African Cultural Heritage

The RISD Museum is committed to researching the provenance of its collections objects from Africa and will update its online object records to reflect new findings.The Museum recognizes the looted status of the bronze head of a king (oba) given to the Museum in 1939. This work, which probably dates to the 1700s, was made by Benin royal artists in West Africa. In 1897, following unsuccessful attempts at annexation, British forces sacked the Benin Kingdom, burning cities, forcing the reigning king into exile, and looting works of art and other treasures in a campaign known as the Benin Punitive Expedition. Soon after, museums and individuals throughout Europe and the United States began collecting Benin bronzes.

The RISD Museum has initiated communication with Oba Ewuare II and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria. The Museum sees this as an opportunity to confront the histories of colonialism inherent to comprehensive museum collections. For more information see Savoy and Sarr, The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Towards a New Relational Aesthetics (November 2018).

Provenance and Acquisition of Asian Art, Ancient Art, and Archaeological Materials

The Museum follows guidelines set forth by the American Association of Museum Directors (AAMD) Report on the Acquisition of Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art (revised June 4, 2008). These guidelines adhere to the policies of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Export, Import and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (November 17, 1970) and the implementing provisions adopted by the signatory states. The RISD Museum practices due diligence in establishing the provenance of any proposed acquisition and does not acquire any object that, to the knowledge of the Museum, has been stolen, illegally imported, or removed from its country of origin without appropriate approval before November 1970, the date of the UNESCO convention. The RISD Museum continues to research its collection and will update records as new details regarding the provenance of its objects are discovered.