More than Just Objects

Potter Stewart once said, “Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”  Thirty years later, this sentiment still holds true for communities and professionals alike, including the museum field.

I spoke with Eva Fognell, Curator of the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art at the Fenimore Art Museum.  We discussed the various ethical issues that museums face with their collections.  Working with Native American collections, Fognell believes the museum has a particular obligation to interpret the objects and artwork in an appropriate manner.

How do we as museum professionals ensure proper care and treatment of these objects?  How do we ensure that a culture is being represented appropriately?  When these objects are not treated according to cultural tradition, Fognell states that the museum runs the risk of losing that community’s support, alienating them and hampering the institution’s legitimacy.

Museums hold a degree of credibility that few other community instructions possess.  Therefore, according to the AAM, it is necessary for museums to evaluate their practices, whether in their governance, collections, or programming, ensuring that they are fulfilling their mission and responsibilities.  Are museums breaking ethical standards by not offering programs that reach wider audiences?  Are the breaking ethical standards by neglecting to represent a perspective of a story?  While ethics in collections is necessary, it is equally important to remember that ethical issues expand beyond objects alone.

-Kahla Woodling


Interview with Eva Fognell, Curator of the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art at the Fenimore Art Museum, December 3, 2012.

American Association of Museums.  Code of Ethics for Museums. http://www.aam-  2000.

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One Response to More than Just Objects

  1. Your post raises some interesting questions and suggests that museums be held to a very high standard of operation—-that their decisions about audience and community as well as their collections policies determine ethical behavior.

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