All Questions, But Who Has the Answers?

The collection is everything in the art world.  It is the heart of the institution, so why would an institution decide to get rid of it?  If you start deaccessioning items, eventually you won’t have a collection or anything that matters, right?  Some may say these actions are unethical if the profit made is not put back into collections, but who decides what’s ethical? When museums make decisions that challenge public trust, who’s the brain behind the decision?  If your institution saw an opportunity to invest in its future at the expense of the collection, would you do it?

Brian Alexander had an ethical dilemma as the Director of the Shelburne Museum.  His Board made the decision to deaccession a small number of items in the collection to establish an endowment that went toward the long-term care and management of the majority of its collections. The decision sent many people and organizations in the art world in uproar.  One of these being AAM who stepped in to advise Alexander on what they thought to be the ethical path.  Is it the AAM’s duty to be the arbitrator of ethical decisions in museums or is that power in the hands of trustees of individual institutions? Ultimately, he said, what it comes down to is that the obligations of the trustees is to the institution first, even if it means criticism.

As Alexander said, when in doubt “always take the high road and try to do the right thing for your institution.”

Source Citations:

Alexander, Brian. Interview by Megan Hartmann and Araya Henry. 13 December 2013.

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Where Should These Remains Remain? — Plumbing the Depths of Museum Ethics

Millions of people visit museums every year to engage with stories that collections can tell.  The collections and stories are diverse, but one thing they share is that, “[a museum’s] stewardship of collections entails the highest public trust and carries with it the presumption of rightful ownership”.  [1]

But, what should a museum do if an individual makes a legal claim on one of its objects?

I spoke with Brian Alexander, former Director of the Shelburne Museum, about this ethical situation. He responded that museums should tread carefully and ascertain the legitimacy of that claim. He elaborated by saying that, “the claimant’s statement may call into question the museum’s ownership, but only if definitively proven otherwise should the museum even think about restoring the object to the claimant. Standards for this proof must be very high because setting such a precedent will call into question ownership of the museum’s entire collection. Even then, the museum must proceed with caution. Ultimately, the decision (and precedent setting) will rest with the museum’s Board of Trustees who act in the best interests of the museum and the public”. [2]

So far, so good.  Sometimes, however, the ethical path may be less obvious.

Take, for example, the case of Kennewick Man, concerning prehistoric remains uncovered in Washington and dated to at least 8,000 years old.  The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) states that Native American human remains must be repatriated if native tribes can prove they are related to the remains.  However, archeological scholars used the skeleton’s “Caucasoid” appearance and its age to dispute the relation of Kennewick Man to modern local tribes. Following a legal battle, the U.S. Government decided that the bones should reside at a neutral museum location and be available for study and interpretation.  [3]

What do you think about this decision?  Are there other cases where collections ethics can be murky?

Source Citations:

1.  American Association of Museums, “Code of Ethics for Museums,” 1994.

2.  Alexander, Brian. Interview by Megan Hartmann and Araya Henry. 13 December 2013.

3.  “Who is ‘Kennewick Man,’ also known as ‘The Ancient One’?,” Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture,  Accessed 16 December, 2013.

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Accessibility to Inclusion: The Next Step

Inclusion is more than a buzzword; it embodies the broader impetus to create an open and equal forum for people of different cultures, backgrounds, or abilities.  Inclusion takes accessibility one step further, from an open door to an invitation.

Art Beyond Sight, an organization “dedicated to making the visual arts play a vital role in the lives of people who are blind and visually impaired,” redefines the responsibility of institutions toward individuals with disabilities.[1]  Rather than a diagnosis, a medical ‘problem’ that limits and defines a person, Art Beyond Sight sees disability as “a social and environmental issue that deals with accessibility, accommodations, and equity.”  This new paradigm puts the onus on institutions to adapt and accommodate people of different abilities.

The issue of physical access has largely been solved; most museums today provide accessible bathrooms, entrances, lifts, and parking.  However, many museums stop at physical accessibility.  In order to be inclusive, museums need to add another layer of accommodations, and consider exhibition layout, content, and programming.  By offering staff training and including individuals with disabilities in exhibit development, museums could foster a deeper understanding of this diverse population and begin to make simple, foundational changes to create a more welcoming atmosphere.

Individuals with disabilities constitute an underutilized community resource that could enrich the cultural discourse in museums.  By not only opening the door, but also extending an invitation through accommodations, universal design, and inclusive learning environments, museums can grow to embrace a more diverse audience.

-Kirsten Swartz


[1] “Art Beyond Sight,” Art Education for the Blind.  Accessed December 2, 2013,

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How Do We Increase Diversity in Museums?

This week, our conversation in class will focus on diversity in museums. I was fortunate enough to speak with Cordell Reaves at the NYS Parks Department and Chris Taylor at the Minnesota Historical Society, both of whom are involved in increasing diversity at their institutions. Many museums seem to feel that diversity is achieved by having a few programs or an exhibit that showcases objects from a different culture. On the contrary, museums need to be dedicated to bringing in a diverse audience at all times. This should include not only different racial, ethnic, and cultural groups, but also different socioeconomic groups and intellectual interests.

In order to do this, Chris and Cordell both agreed that we need to change the staff at museums. Only by changing the staff to reflect the diverse people in our communities will museums be able to create an environment where these people feel welcome. Many museums use the excuse that there are not enough qualified people from these communities to work at museums. However, museums need to be the ones to cultivate middle and high school students’ interests and show students that it is possible for them to pursue a career in museums. If they are interested in art, history, or other related fields, this is an industry where they can make a difference.

Have you heard of successful outreach programs for middle and high school students? Do you have any ideas for how we can create and implement these programs for students?

- Cyndi Tolosa

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Objects, Yay or Nay?

On a recent trip to Washington D.C., our class saw the exhibit, Can You Walk Away? at Lincoln’s Cottage. The exhibit raised awareness on modern-day slavery by using taped testimonies from survivors. The exhibit was compelling and easily captured everyone’s attention, and no object were needed in the exhibit.

So the question of the day is, do museums still need objects? In the past, museums were viewed as collecting institutions, today they are education centers. The focus on collecting objects has become less of a priority for some museums in recent decades, leaving many collections in the dark and unknown to the public. So what should we do with unwanted or unused collections?

Erin Richardson, who believes that museums still need objects, points out that less established museums may lack the resources to have own a collection that they may need. As a solution, museums, who lack collections or objects, could request objects from other institutions and then use those loaned objects in their exhibits. Not only will it take the object out of the dark storage facility, but in return the loaned objects will get seen by more people, and this will increase the public and other institutions’ awareness of the types of collections that are available or hidden at certain museums.

With that said, how would you feel about lending your own objects to another institution? Should museums have a more organized system for lending objects or making more collections known to other institutions.

Jeanette Sanchez


1. Richardson, Erin. Interview by Jeanette Sanchez. 18 November 2013.


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