Custer’s Last Flag

11 Dec

As you can see from this article, Custer’s flag from the Battle of Little Bighorn is being auctioned off by the Detroit Institute of Arts.  Their reason is that “as a purely historical object rather than a work of art, it falls outside the museum’s mission and expertise.”  Someone on a listserv I am on asked this question:

Wondering if any archivists/curators have seen this and wondered whether or not such an item should be transferred instead of sold?  Ethically, I feel like such an important piece of America’s history should be transferred to a museum, archive, or other institution rather than to a private collector that may pay $2-$5 million for it.

A professor at Kent State University’s School of Library and Information Science, Dr. Kiersten Latham, responded that it is indeed fair practice even if it seems unethical to some.  She does acknowledge that while deaccessioning because of mission change or collection weeding is standard, it’s still controversial in American museums.  She also points out that places like Sotheby’s and Christie’s exist in part because of these collections.  A last thought from her was that it is possible a wealthy benefactor may purchase it and donate it to a museum; it does happen, if rarely.

My thoughts on this march with Dr. Latham.  Perhaps it’s the archivist in me, but since I’ve had to construct mission statements for projects before and have seen them applied at places I’ve worked, I completely understand why the DIA would deaccession this item.  It’s not art, and the article mentions they have a big money problem.  If they cannot care for the items under their scope, then weeding the collection is a good step and a responsible one.  Putting the item up for auction also allows for, as the article states, funds to be obtained from the sale and directed toward acquisitions of items under the DIA’s scope or for maintenance of current items.

This also overlooks the fact that while it is a piece of America’s history, there is no law against private ownership of historical artifacts.  Similarly, I see nothing wrong with putting an item up for auction to a private collector, as the collector who pays millions of dollars for artifacts is likely to care for it correctly.  I don’t think this is a solution to be applied in all circumstances, all of the time, but in this instance I find it the best practice possible.  It allows the DIA to weed its collection, obtain funds to preserve what it has, and offers the opportunity for the preservation of this artifact.  Many times I’ve heard stories of archives that weeded their collections and after being unable to find another institution to take them, threw out the papers.  I find it more ethical to offer items for sale than to throw them away, assuming they have enduring value.

Sometimes I wonder if we as a profession look down on private collectors for no reason other than they’re private collectors.  Certainly we can argue that rare books, unique manuscripts and artifacts with historical value ought to be owned by public institutions instead of a single person who has the discretion to restrict access unreasonably.  Private collectors deserve more from us, since it is often by their grace we get donations of import, financial and material.

An update to the story of Custer’s Flag: it sold for $2.2 million. The DIA plans to use the funds to “strengthen [their] collection of Native American art”.  The DIA also makes a valid point that while they acquired the flag during an acquisition period of natural history and historical items, for much of its life it was not on display and access was restricted.  They got calls angry they were selling the flag but people didn’t even know they had it!  That’s absurd, and now that it’s owned by a private, American collector, the flag is in no different a situation than before: owned, not on public display.  I urge you to read the comment by rob neighborhood on the second article; it smacks of lack of understanding about the way our institutions operate and highlights the need for libraries, archives and museums to continually perform outreach and education to the community.


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