Museum ethics are one of the most challenging things professionals in the field will face, but the ethical line is not always easy to identify. In the mid-1990s the Shelburne Museum recognized that their collection was not properly stored and in time things were going to deteriorate. The museum needed to find quick ways to raise money for the preservation of the collection. They created a committee to vet all possible avenues to raise the money. After extensive research, they decided to deaccession and auction a few impressionist paintings and sculptures from the collection. They estimated the return would be roughly 25 million dollars. At auction they got what they expected and created an endowment fund that still preserves and maintains the collection today. They however, faced serious scrutiny. The AAM felt they were violating the code of ethics they had set forth just a few years earlier. They argued that the museum was working outside the definition of collection care, even though the AAM, nor anyone else, could clearly define what collection care meant. Mr. Alexander stands by his discussion today. His actions, along with the support of the donors and trustees of the museum, ensured the long-term preservation and sustainability of the museum. There are others that disagree.
What do you think? Was the Shelburne Museum in the right? Did they act ethically? Sometimes it is as clear as a curator buying up art by a new artist that is going to be featured in their museum, but the line is not always so clear. What other ethical examples can you think of that don’t necessarily have a clearly defined line?