Who should define ethics in the museum field? For the Shelburne Museum and its then-Director, Brian Alexander, this was a fundamental question during a vicious media scandal in the mid-1990s. In order to raise money for the long-term care and storage of their collections, the museum, after careful research and consideration, decided to sell off several Impressionist paintings and sculptures to establish a collections endowment. For the AAM this violated the newly minted Code of Ethics which stated that collections could only be sold for “direct care of collections”. Mr. Alexander and the Shelburne did not agree with AAM’s vague definition of “direct care” and believed their actions were in the best interests of the museum and its long-term sustainability.
In the book Give Me My Father’s Body, the American Museum of Natural History’s numerous serious ethical violations including embezzlement, money laundering, grave robbing, lying, and general human indecency were relatively clear-cut. However, what happens when ethical dilemmas like the Shelburne’s are much more ambiguous? For Mr. Alexander, museum ethics exist on continuum, or a “sliding scale”. He believes that although museums should try their best to satisfy ethical guidelines of larger organizations like the AAM, not every museum fits into those guidelines the exact same way. At some point an institution must define for itself what is ethical and best for the museum within the larger framework. So who should decide what is ethical? The AAM? Specific institutions? The media? The public? Or some combination of all of these elements?