The Clear Ethical Line

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?

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4 Responses to The Clear Ethical Line

  1. wagnmw says:

    I am reminded of Delaware Art Museum right now. They sold up to 4 artworks during this summer. However, they were paying off their bills/debt and adding back to their portifolio. The DAM was trying to stay afloat. Would that constitute as the same thing as what Shelburne did? I know what happened with the Shelburne. They created an endowment and planned for the future. For DAM, they retired their debt (according to their press releases: and added some back into investments. The debt was created due to the museum expansion and events such as 2008’s recession. Could DAM done something else and is what they add back to their investment going to help in the future?

    Also, some might remember my choice for one of our classes to talk about the Mutter Museum in Pennsylvania. They have real human skeletons and display them prominently for education. Does that cross the lines of ethnics?

  2. Alli Rico says:

    I was under the impression that “direct care of the collections” was one of the few reasons a museum had to ethically deaccession objects. To me, it appears that the Shelburne saw their collection was threatened, chose the route the saw best fit their need, and sold pieces they knew would bring in money to help them preserve the rest of their collection in perpetuity. It’s been a while since I’ve been to the Shelburne Museum, but impressionist paintings don’t seem to fit the mold there anyway, so it makes sense to me that they would choose those objects to sell – do we know where they ended up? Hopefully they are on display somewhere.

  3. kimnmccleary says:

    I agree that the museum responded ethically.

  4. emilykp47 says:

    I’ve heard a lot about the Shelburne Museum case, and I’m still not sure what I think about it. It seems like a solid decision, considering they carefully considered which items to deaccession, and used the proceeds for collections care, but I’d have to know more about the particulars before I decide what I think. Unfortunately, most of the ethical dilemmas we encounter are just like this one; there’s no clear right or wrong, and we just have to rely on our best judgement. The best we can do is consult others and follow our consciences. I wish it was easier, but that’s life.

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