When I was taking Museum Studies courses at Central Michigan University, there was a six letter acronym that never left the discussion: NAGPRA, or the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. This was the natural byproduct of going to a university located on the reservation of the Saginaw-Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan. In those discussions, we talked about the great ethical questions related to the acquisition or possession of human remains in a collection. We read books about Ishi and the Kennewick Man, stories similar to that of Minik in Give Me My Father’s Body, by Kenn Harper.
All of these cases demonstrate ethical violations that illustrate the dramatic difference in the ethical considerations of museums today and those from a hundred years ago. Those ethical dilemmas are beyond the pale these days. Would any of us really consider taking someone hundreds of miles from their home in order to study them? I wonder, though, about more subtle ethical questions. There are opportunities for ethical dilemmas every day, if we look for them. Give Me My Father’s Body does not cover only the larger ethical problems surrounding the bodies of four Polar Eskimos. It also discusses the problems created by William Wallace when he decided to solicit kickbacks from contractors doing work for the American Museum of Natural History (Harper 57). A no less serious ethical violation, but one that occurs far more often in our society. As professionals in public service today, it is these dilemmas that have the greatest ability to do us and our institutions harm.
I discussed the issue of these more subtle, day-to-day ethical problems with Eva Fognell, the curator of the Thaw collection of Native American Art at the Fenimore Art Museum. Her advice to aspiring museum professionals was to work for organizations who value ethical practices. Ethics are difficult to maintain on your own. They can require great personal strength and belief that what you are doing is right. It is a very special person who can be ethical all on their own. When you belong to a team, though, your colleagues can support you in acting ethically. It is also important to remember that ethical practice in a museum requires leadership. Ms. Fognell mentioned was that a single person at the top of an organization has an increased ability to affect change within the organization. If you find yourself working for an organization that does not hold itself to the highest standards, it is far more difficult to affect change from the bottom.
Talking about ethics reminds me of an episode of West Wing. Mrs. Landingham, the President’s secretary, comes in to work after buying a new car. The President is astonished that she paid full sticker price for brand new SUV, but she is proud of that fact. She points out that it is against the law for White House employees to accept gifts in excess of $20, and a car salesmen taking money off the sticker price for no reason would be a gift. I just hope I have the support and strength to make a decision like that someday.
For this post I used:
Kenn Harper. Give Me My Father’s Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo. New York: Washington Square Press, 2000.
AAM. Code of Ethics for Museums, 1994.
With special thanks to Eva Fognell, curator of the Thaw collection of Native American Art at the Fenimore Art Museum.