Changing ethics

Alistair Brown, 26.10.2015
Keeping pace with public consensus
A couple of stories related to me recently by MA members have brought home how our view of ethical behaviour changes over time.

The first involves the difficulties that one museum has had in displaying some of the materials from an old pleasure garden, which used to be home to dancing bears, tigers and a range of circus animals.

Curators wrestled with how to display bear collars and posters that were, to put it delicately, "of their time" and which would appal most people today. A lapse of fifty years makes all the difference in terms of how society views animal rights – and how they expect museums to portray them.

The second dilemma relates to a case some decades ago in which a small museum with one paid member of staff was hosting an exhibition by local artists, who had paid for use of the space.

When the works were hung, it transpired that some of the artworks depicted schoolgirls in suggestive poses, and had been painted by a schoolteacher. Unable to contact either the chairman of the board or the artist in question, the curator was unsure whether to go ahead with the exhibition or not.

In this case, perhaps the rights and wrongs of the matter have not changed much - but our sensitivity to such cases has certainly been heightened in recent years by high profile cases in the media.

Indeed, the ability of the media and social media to turn such issues into maelstroms is likely to make curators much more cautious than they may have been in the past about the portrayal of controversial issues.

In both of the above cases, it is the changing context that is responsible for a shift in the museum’s behaviour. Indeed, it is often when an institution does not keep pace with changing views in society that it finds itself out of step with public expectation (think, for example, of the case earlier this year in which the V&A was widely criticised for refusing entry to two visitors who were wearing onesies).

The same goes for the ethics of storage and disposal. Indeed, the notion of museums holding comprehensive collections, mostly in storage, is one that is regularly chipped away at by commentators and columnists.

Ethics, then, can be a movable feast. Ethical behaviour depends on the relationship between the fundamental principles that we hold dear and the shifting sands of popular consensus. Not an easy task, but one that museums as public institutions must pay heed to.

The draft new Code of Ethics, which has been published after a long period of consultation, seeks to help museums in this task.

It sets out the key principles by which all museums should abide by, come rain or shine: public benefit and engagement, stewardship of collections, and integrity.

Around these three principles, museums should be able to measure and justify their work, while allowing them to adapt to changing societal mores.


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Chris Wood
MA Member
01.11.2015, 00:18
I've just read the 'final draft' and am quite shocked at how much it has been cut down - it's like an executive summary! Yet some things have stayed in unchanged from the old code and the short format does allow one contradiction to stand out - that between sections 1.3 and 3.1. The former supports free speech and freedom of expression, whilst the latter instructs everyone working in museums to avoid private/personal activities that _may_ conflict or _be perceived to_ conflict with the public interest. Whose perception counts? This is a recipe for political control under the guise of ethics.
29.10.2015, 09:34
There is no such thing as a' popular consensus'.An individual visitor to a museum or an art gallery might not approve of an exhibit or an art work because it offends their taste or values, but that is no reason why that exhibit should not have a place in the museum or art gallery.These institutions exist to reflect ' how things were ' in the past, even the recent past ( in the case of the suggestive schoolgirls) and it's the curator's job to be brave enough to stand up to whatever brickbats may come his or her way from the press or the public morals committee. Otherwise we allow ' popular consensus ' to operate a covert censorship, which is not too far from that which the Nazi regime used to suppress what they called ' degenerate art'.
Jane Kidd
Collections Curator, RGU Art & Heritage Collections
28.10.2015, 14:59
This article sounds like an argument for common sense and actual personal responsibility and professionalism. I bet there's not much about either of the examples mentioned in the Draft Code, or about unimagined dilemmas to come.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
29.10.2015, 15:11