The Ivory Problem

With all the talk of destroying illegal ivory happening already this week I wanted to get my thoughts out there. This morning on my Twitter feed the British Museum posted a link to an article in the Guardian “Prince William ‘calls for Buckingham Palace ivory to be destroyed.'” ( in which, as the title implies, Prince William asked that all 1,200 artifacts in the Royal Collection be removed from view and destroyed. The article frames the move as an extension of his commitment to elephant conservation and as an action to strike a blow against the value and significance of ivory goods. I take a different view. The pieces in the Royal Collection, most of them hundreds of years old, have historical and cultural significance for Great Britian beyond their monetary value. Given the age of the pieces they were legally obtained and they are used, as far as I know, solely for display. Examining the material culture of the past provides valuable insights beyond the written record. The oblects in the collection like the examples of scrimshaw* held in maritime museums tell a valuable story about the past and their destruction would wipe out a resource for historic research and understanding rather than further the cause of elephant protection.

I would appreciate any other thoughts on this topic. Will this be beneficial to conservation efforts? Is the destruction of historic ivory collections a loss to material culture study?


*Scrimshaw, for those who are not familiar with the term, is the name for carving, engraving, or shaping of bone or ivory most popular amung nineteenth-century sailors. The scrimshaw pieces sailors created provide an insight into the daily lives of ordinary nineteenth-century men and are scenes of ships, harbors, whaling expeditions, or patriotic or biblical images, cut outs from magazines and whales.


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