Free Dina’s Art

An ICOM Response
April 11, 2009, 4:56 am
Filed under: Active Decency | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The International Council of Museums’ Ethics Committee has now had a chance to respond to my most recent letter. Their reply was thorough and frankly, unparaphraseable without great danger of misinterpretation.

I don’t know if it is proper of me to share it with the world but it is certainly preferable that I show it to you, than that I merely translate it for you, according to my reading of it. We are always best served when we educate ourselves.

So, here is what I got from ICOM, followed by my response. The letter that catalyzed this exchange appears two posts below this.

From ICOM:

Date: 1 April 2009 (01:15 am 2/4/09-Aust)
To: Mr Tim Thibeault (Canada)
From: Chair, ICOM Ethics Committee (Bernice Murphy)
Re: *Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Vs claim of Mrs Dinah Gottliebová–Babbitt*

Dear Mr Thibeault,

I am writing in response to your email message of 25 March (last week).

I provide you (below) with a short report as to what efforts have been made to assist the Ethics Committee of ICOM to gain information about this case.

First, I should stress that ICOM (the International Council of Museums) has been without question supportive of the principle of proactive investigation and return of works held in museums that can be linked to holocaust-related events of persecution and dispossession of rightful owners of their property. Indeed some members of ICOM have been leaders within the profession (for decades) in raising awareness of holocaust-related holdings in many museum collections, and of the moral and ethical obligation of museums to divest themselves of such works when wrongfully acquired, and to take all steps possible to trace owners or their descendants and to achieve effective return of such items.

Turning now to the case you have raised: I can report that the ICOM Ethics Committee has been aware of this case for quite some time. As a result of rising media coverage, I began to take some initiatives in 2007 (as Ethics Committee Chair) to make inquiries among our own museum networks internationally into the background of this dispute involving an important museum in Europe. My concern was that my colleagues on the Ethics Committee should be briefed as to the issues that seemed to be involved in this case, and what actions might have been taken (by various parties) to respond to the claims of Mrs Dinah Gottliebová–Babbitt for return of artworks made by her many decades ago in lamentable circumstances of internment – works today in the possession of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in Poland.

Our inquiries, and the very carefully composed information we were able to receive, suggested that this case is very complex. It transpires that there are more issues, perspectives and rights involved in this very sensitive dispute (including the rights of the Roma people who are depicted in the portrait-sketches claimed for return by Mrs Gottliebová–Babbitt) than are apparent, perhaps, at first encounter.

Our highest responsibility, as the ICOM Ethics Committee upholding the principles of the _ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums_ – and therefore acting to ensure best-possible understanding and observance of the ethical standards and codes of conduct governing our profession internationally – is as follows: We seek to be aware and assured that our colleagues in museums are making all reasonable efforts to explore and act in accordance with our mutually binding standards as a profession, especially when any matter of doubt or dispute, with strong ethical implications, arises in the conduct of museums’ work.

There is no doubt that the claims of Mrs Dinah Gottliebová–Babbitt for return of artworks of which she is the author _do_ indeed have strong ethical implications. These issues call upon museums to exert intense moral effort to understand what has occurred historically behind such a dispute, and to do everything possible to resolve how best to act today according to clearly enunciated principles that guide our profession. In this case, such principles touch profoundly on questions of historical understanding and justice in the present world.

The Ethics Committee’s inquiries two years ago eventually yielded a detailed and comprehensive account of the efforts that had conscientiously been made to recognise Mrs Gottliebová–Babbitt as the author of the artworks held in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum (indeed the museum had sought her out to establish this authorship correctly), and to act thoughtfully and respectfully towards her history in relation to how those works came to be made, and how they should be interpreted today to assist in conveying to later generations the tragic historical events that constituted the holocaust in the twentieth century.

The Ethics Committee of ICOM had meanwhile not been approached directly by any party involved in this dispute. In view of the greater understanding provided by expert colleagues (beyond our Committee members) who had investigated the background to the case, and the many conscientious actions taken by museum colleagues in seeking to resolve complex ethical issues justly, it did not seem that there were grounds for ICOM to intervene.

I can report finally that, following your approach recently, I have again drawn the ICOM Ethics Committee’s attention to this case, and sought consultation with colleagues among our wider networks internationally, who previously gained expert information for us and assisted our understanding. I have raised queries as to whether there is any new action or further significant information to be added to our knowledge of this case. I will report back to my colleagues on the Ethics Committee when I gain a response, so that they may be informed as to whether they believe there is cause for any further consideration or action on ICOM’s behalf.

I trust that this report assists you to understand the actions taken by the ICOM Ethics Committee with respect to this case, to ensure that we understand as fully as possible all aspects of the issues you have raised on behalf of Mrs Dinah Gottliebová–Babbitt.


Bernice Murphy

cc. Members of ICOM Ethics Committee; Secretariat of ICOM

That was the official response from the ICOM Ethics Committee. Here is my reply:

Date: 11 April 2009 (12:09 am/Canada)
From: Tim Thibeault
To: Chair, ICOM Ethics Committee (Bernice Murphy)
Re: *Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights*

Dear Ms Murphy,

I am writing to thank you for your prompt and thorough response to my request for an update on ICOM’s awareness of the matter of Dina Gottliebova’s Gypsy portraits currently being held by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in violation of Mrs Babbitt’s human rights as defined by article 17.2 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

May I ask a question to clarify an issue of some importance to the hundreds of people anxious to see Mrs Babbitt’s human rights respected? I am impelled to ask by your phrase, “…our mutually binding standards as a profession…”.

It is this:

It has been 36 years since the portraits were first identified as Dina Babbitt’s work.

Does the ICOM Ethics Committee believe that article 17.2 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights /*is*/ being respected by the administrators of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in their withholding of Mrs Babbitt’s work?

If so, no further action is required.

Again Ms Murphy, I commiserate with any discomfort arising from my questioning of this issue, however it is Mrs Babbitt who is most discomforted of all, and I would like to bring an end to her anguish in an honourable and respectful way. I believe that ICOM can be of some assistance in this effort, if the committee members can demonstrate unobfuscatory clarity of vision and honest political will.

Thank you.


Tim Thibeault


1 Comment so far
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I thought that it is a matter of record that the museum in question has publicly refused to return Dina’s art to her. Why then does ICOM bother mentioning that it has not heard from the museum directly? That, it seems to me, is quite irrelevant. I believe ICOM should by now, given that it admits it has long been aware of the issue, have taken a position on the matter.

Comment by Arthur

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