Ethics in Employee and Museum Collecting

Over the summer I interned in the Collections Department at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. It was an amazing experience and from that I learned many things regarding museum ethics. My first lesson came, unbeknownst to me at the time and realized much later, while I was being interviewed for the position. My future boss asked me if I collected anything to do with baseball. “Sure,” I answered, then I proceeded to discuss the baseball cards, autographs I have personally acquired at signings or at games, and general fan based gear that I collect. Everything is Red Sox in origin.

When I met with Sue MacKay, the woman who became my boss and is now the Head of the Collections Department, for our interview on museum ethics, she had just had every full-time and 1,000 hour employee fill out an Employee Personal Inventory Form. What this form entails is that all staff have to fill out everything baseball related that they have acquired over the year for themselves, things that the Hall of Fame Museum or Library collects as well. So the baseball ticket I have from the July 5, 2009 Red Sox game versus the Seattle Mariners, the game when Tim Wakefield was named to the All-Star Team for the first time in his career has to be claimed. That first year must have been especially hard because everyone had to itemize their entire collection; each year after that, people only need to update their collection. New employees have to disclose everything. Everyone also has to disclose if they have gotten rid of something from their collection and how. Had I been an employee and not an intern, everything I had listed and more would have to be disclosed in writing on that form.

Sue MacKay then goes through all of the lists to see if any employee has something that the museum might want or need. She said that it hasn’t happened, but there is a chance that depending on the item, the museum could politely suggest that it be donated. Once she is done going through the forms, she folds each of them up and puts them into envelopes, which are then sealed. They then go into the respective Human Resources employee files.

She said that when the policy was first enacted, in the late 1990s, a few did not understand why such a form was necessary. Usually it is against policy to collect the same thing that the museum you work at does. Baseball artifacts, however, are of a different breed of collections. They are current, many are easy to obtain, and they can be found all over; plus, new artifacts are created each season, with each playoff series, and possibly in every baseball game played. Baseball cards count as well. Once the this policy was explained, employees began to understand and now as they assess their new collections each year they sometimes donate things to the museum on their own.

If I was purely a collector, I could see where even the slightest possibility of my losing something out of that collection would bother me. People collect (usually) because they have an interest in or an emotional attachment to the things that they collect, and giving up part of that attachment is difficult. On an ethical standpoint, I clearly see why the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum needs to have an Employee Personal Inventory Form, or why almost any other museum needs to have a form like this. An employee from any museum ethically should question the acquisition of those things that the museum he or she works at collects, but especially so if that acquisition bars the museum from getting something significant or something that is one of a kind.  It also must be stated here that the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum does not buy any of its artifacts; everything is donated, whether the artifacts come from private collectors, the public, baseball teams, and baseball players. An employee or anyone able to purchase a potential artifact is all ready at an advantage over the museum that does not make purchases. That adds to yet another layer to this ethics discussion. It would be different to some extent if the museum had the ability to purchase items for the collection because it would put the museum and the employee-collector on a more level acquisition field, where the determining factor (other than non-employee collectors) would be price limits.

What works for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and its employees, as one can hope it works for everywhere, is that the employees understand the importance of disclosing their collections. They realize that the institution serves the public interest and that the public holds a trust in the institution to be careful stewards of the objects within. They believe in what the museum is doing and even donate their own artifacts to further the museum’s mission and values.  Everyone, from the President to the Maintenance staff are required to fill out the form, showing that there is no one beyond the reach of the ethics policy and that everyone is held to the same standard.

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Here is a section of the Employee Personal Inventory Form that I filled out as if I had to disclose the baseball related items I acquired over the year.

Partial Employee Personal Inventory Form

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