Who Decides?

Who should define ethics in the museum field? For the Shelburne Museum and its then-Director, Brian Alexander, this was a fundamental question during a vicious media scandal in the mid-1990s. In order to raise money for the long-term care and storage of their collections, the museum, after careful research and consideration, decided to sell off several Impressionist paintings and sculptures to establish a collections endowment. For the AAM this violated the newly minted Code of Ethics which stated that collections could only be sold for “direct care of collections”. Mr. Alexander and the Shelburne did not agree with AAM’s vague definition of “direct care” and believed their actions were in the best interests of the museum and its long-term sustainability.

In the book Give Me My Father’s Body, the American Museum of Natural History’s numerous serious ethical violations including embezzlement, money laundering, grave robbing, lying, and general human indecency were relatively clear-cut. However, what happens when ethical dilemmas like the Shelburne’s are much more ambiguous? For Mr. Alexander, museum ethics exist on continuum, or a “sliding scale”. He believes that although museums should try their best to satisfy ethical guidelines of larger organizations like the AAM, not every museum fits into those guidelines the exact same way. At some point an institution must define for itself what is ethical and best for the museum within the larger framework. So who should decide what is ethical? The AAM? Specific institutions? The media? The public? Or some combination of all of these elements?

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2 Responses to Who Decides?

  1. noahblev says:

    Great points Tori. I’d have to agree with Brian that ethical issues are rarely so cut and dry. With that in mind, each institution should be able to trust it’s leadership in making such tough decisions. The AAM must monitor these to make sure all in the field are held accountable, but we as a field need to be able to trust that museums and cultural institutions are hiring people who understand the specific environment in which they are working.

  2. emilykp47 says:

    I think having an organizational code of of ethics, such as the AAM does, is very important. Pretty much every professional organization (The National Association of Social Workers and the American Medical Association comes to mind) has a code of ethics. That way, consumers/patients/clients know that everyone in the profession is held to the same standards, and helps build trust.
    However, every institution is different, and not all situations lend themselves to a one-size-fits all code of ethics. Museum employees must use their best judgment, and hopefully consult others who have faced similar issues. It’s a tricky issue, and in the end I think ethics is something both highly individual and highly culturally-defined. All we can do is pay close attention to institutions such as museums, and speak up if something seems wrong.

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