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Duo Researches the Intersection of Criminal Law and Museums

November 21, 2018
man and woman standing beside a words on a wall
UW law Professor Darrell Jackson and Nicole Crawford, chief curator and assistant director of the UW Art Museum, have teamed up for a unique project that studies the issues that arise from museum artifacts and collections that have a questionable history of acquisition and explores the potential legal repercussions of such items. (Nicole Crawford Photo)

University of Wyoming College of Law Professor Darrell Jackson and Nicole Crawford, chief curator and assistant director of the UW Art Museum, have teamed up on a research project that intersects criminal law and museums.

Last year, Crawford and Jackson were part of a pilot group of UW professors participating in the inaugural UW in Scotland Program. UW in Scotland is a collaborative and transdisciplinary research and teaching project that included a residential colloquium at Walter Scott’s house at Abbotsford. The project is to build, sustain and enable faculty commitment to international and transdisciplinary research and to exploratory teaching in Scotland.

The resulting project from Crawford and Jackson reflects the mission of the program. They developed “Stealing Culture: The Intersection of Criminal Law and Museums.”

Crawford and Jackson’s collaborative research project is not only the first of its kind, but it also has the potential to have a large-scale impact throughout the art community worldwide. The unique partnership seeks to understand the issues that arise from museum artifacts and collections that have a questionable history of acquisition, and to further explore the potential legal repercussions of such items, they say.

“We are looking at specific objects of questionable provenance, such as looted artifacts, pure theft, forgeries and fraud, and then asking both the theoretical and practical questions of how that should work, both retroactively and going forward,” Crawford says. “Currently, there are no concrete rules governing these situations or any academic research to rely on, so we are asking the tough questions and hopefully creating guidelines for the world to follow.”

Traditionally, the topic rarely is discussed in the museum world; however, it is becoming more prevalent, she adds. The research from Crawford and Jackson is sparking new discussions in two disciplines that rarely converge and garnering interest on both sides.

They have been invited to speak about their research throughout the United States and abroad, including France, England, the Netherlands and Canada. Additionally, they have been approached by publishers to produce book chapters, journal articles and also a full book on the subject.

The project development itself is in three phases:

-- The investigative research portion: With the help of several travel grants in support of their work, Crawford and Jackson spent the past summer traveling Europe to forge new relationships and visit with prominent museums. The purpose was to learn more about collections overseas, particularly those in countries with histories of colonization. They also spent time conducting research on similar-themed projects.

-- Targeting specific objects/origins: Crawford and Jackson plan to hone in on specific objects and collections of questionable origin, and look at case studies in which ambiguously acquired art has been requested for repatriation and denied. Phase two also features a course on the topic taught through UW’s Honors College. The course will be available next spring semester.

-- The release and publication of much of the research in both museum and law publications: A protocol may be developed that museums can follow and authorities can rely on. Phase three also will introduce a teaching component on an international scale, with a study-abroad course offered in Abbotsford in 2020.

Jackson says the experience has been both exciting and exhausting.

“It is challenging and humbling to be at the forefront of something and work toward building the foundation on an unexplored subject,” he says. “We are literally leaders in the field, but that comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility.”

Crawford joined the UW Art Museum in 2009. Before her current role as the chief curator and assistant director, she served as the curator for collections. In her role, she was instrumental in expanding the UW Art Museum audiences on an international scale, as well as creating new study-abroad and learning opportunities for students.

Jackson joined the UW College of Law in 2012 and is the Prosecution Assistance Clinic’s faculty director. He teaches courses in criminal law, criminal procedure, criminal adjudication and critical race theory. Jackson’s research interests dovetail with his current project with Crawford, as his writing has traditionally focused on historically marginalized communities as they struggle to obtain an equitable share of power within democratic societies.

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