Transparency a Museum Necessity?

Today transparency is imperative if museums are going to continue to hold the public trust and donor support. Over the last twenty years, museums and historic sites have come under intense scrutiny by the public and various other agencies regarding the care, acquisition, and disposal of objects within their collections. In order to cope with these calls for transparency, museums are developing ethical codes in order to govern various aspects of operations, and placing many polices and standards on their respective websites for public access. Museum organizations like the American Association of Museums or the American Association of State and Local History have developed ethics codes that govern various aspects of museums operations, but the most important ethical topics that museums grapple with today, I argue, are those regarding culturally sensitive objects and ethical acquisition standards and public perception.

In the book, Give Me My Father’s Body, the issue of culturally-sensitive objects is just one of many ethical questions raised by the narrative. In this book, four Inuit men die of tuberculoses after being brought to New York by explorer Robert Peary in 1897. The son of one of these men, Minik, becomes an orphan of the American Museum of Natural History. Conversely, his father’s body and the bodies of the other three Inuit men also become acquisitions of the museum and are placed on in an exhibition along with their personal effects. Over the course of many years, countless appeals were made to the museum to return the bodies of the Inuit men back to their respective tribes in Greenland. These requests were subsequently denied, often without sufficient explanation, until 1993 when the museum decided to release the remains.

This book raises issues of ethical museum collections management and governance in addition to cultural repatriation of ethnic objects. In order to get the opinion of a professional who deals with ethics on a daily basis, I interviewed Doug Kendall, who is the curator of collections for the New York States Historical Association and the Farmer’s Museum. According to him, in order for museums to avoid issues regarding conflicts of personal interests among trustees and committee members, museums, like the Fenimore Art Museum, put in place a collections policy that ensures multiple levels of review of a proposed object. An Advocacy Committee is asked to review and research a proposed objects provenance and if applicable, whether it falls under the Native American Grave and Repatriation Act. If approved the object is submitted for acceptance by the Vice President or CEO of the museum. Committee meetings are documented as well and every member of the staff is given both a copy of the collections policy and the ethics policy to ensure further transparency of procedures and expectations. All of the procedures and safeguards appear to be satisfactory and are in accordance with the standards set by the AAM Code of Ethics, but is it enough?

Why do museums seem secretive about the objects with which they acquire? Why does the media and others continue to feel that museums are hoarders of pillaged objects and what should museums do to remove this stigma? Or should they?

For my blog 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
Special thank you to Douglass Kendall, Curator of Collections at the New York State Historical Association and the Farmer’s Museum

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