Balancing Ethics in a Changing World

In Give Me My Father’s Body, Kenn Harper tells the story of Minik, a young Inuk, who struggles to find his place in the world after he is removed from his home in Greenland. Harper details the struggles Minik faced while trying to reclaim his father’s body from the Museum of Natural History and the overall unethical behavior of the museum’s professionals. While the ethical issues discussed in the book are numerous, are they the same ethical issues museums are still dealing with today?

I talked with Brian Alexander, professor of museum administration at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, to discuss how advancements in technology and the demand to diversify will change the way in which museums deal with ethical questions. He talked about the importance of finding balance and accepting that as the world changes, so too will ethical issues. While code of ethics exist to help guide museums, it has been the experience of Professor Alexander that museum professionals must decide for themselves what constitutes acting in an ethical way. He stressed that regardless of the decisions made, museum professionals must not sacrifice the integrity of the institution.

Fortunately, laws governing the ethical treatment and repatriation of human remains, have helped decrease the issues found in Give Me My Father’s Body, but due to advancements in technology and a demand to see more diversity in museums, new ethical issues are bound to arise. What are some ethical concerns that may arise in this new diverse and digital age?


About pnorman02

Cooperstown Graduate Program, Class of 2017.
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16 Responses to Balancing Ethics in a Changing World

  1. emerbr84 says:

    One problem I see is the concern over the publication of tweets and Facebook posts. Although these are public posts, citizens may be concerned if the comments are used in museums to add substance to the exhibit. I fear that although these are more public than letters that are used in exhibits today, they may elicit a more severe reaction from the public.

    • kwebberj says:

      That’s a very interesting issue that I haven’t thought of before. I’ve known of many nonprofit organizations using hashtags to promote certain events and ideas–the organizations seem to freely use tweets containing the hashtag. I’ve personally used tweets in a presentation I was doing for work without really thinking about it much. It would be helpful if there were some standard in place for best practice methods.

    • This gets especially tricky when you start thinking about tweets and social media posts of museum staff as well. Should the museum require staff to emphasize that their tweets don’t necessarily represent the views of the institution? What is acceptable for staff to share on social media? Do museums have the right to decide this, or does that verge on censorship?

  2. mickcr says:

    You raise an interesting question, I think ethical concerns will constantly be evolving and the way that museums handle that will vary depending on the issue. Hopefully museums will develop guidelines to handle digital problems that may arise.

  3. Leanne says:

    Online reviews! I think online reviews, which are accessible for everyone to see, are a whole new ethical area that museums must face in the digital age. Protocols should be set about handling bad reviews in an responsible manner.

  4. jehartman93 says:

    Although new ethical concerns continue to arise, museums still have hundreds of thousands of human remains to repatriate. The ethical treatment and repatriation of human remains is still a huge and very relevant issue. According to the NY Times, the Smithsonian returns so many human remains to so many indigenous communities annually that they’ve built a special room just to host repatriation ceremonies. Museums like the British Museum are still refusing to repatriate human remains, as well.

    • pnorman02 says:

      I absolutely agree with you and in no way believe that just because there is legislation, these issues automatically disappear. Has it helped? Yes, but there’s still so much more that needs to be done.

      My decision to talk about future ethical issues wasn’t because I think repatriation issues have been solved, but rather, because that is what was discussed in my interview.

    • kiewma93 says:

      It is amazing to me that some museums are still refusing repatriation. It just goes to show that, while we have evolved in technology, not everyone has evolved ethically. I do not believe a museum NEEDS these artifacts to tell a story.

    • karissa430 says:

      I think it’s important for museums and legislation to find a system of repatriation that is a uniform and quick process. Julie, you’re right in the fact that museums still have human remains. Internationally, there’s no law like NAGPRA that requires museums to repatriate their human remains. It’s still on the basis of individual museums’ decisions. Maybe having an international legal code would help with the repatriation of human remains.

  5. joshdtaylor says:

    It is a difficult question. In this digital age, almost anything can be obtained. I feel the biggest issue is taking the digital media and making useful to the public without it offending part of the public. It is will be interesting to see what ethics and digital media bring up in the next few years.

  6. peteglog says:

    I agree that ethics are constantly evolving, changing and being reinvented. The digital age and the digital spaces that are being used are also evolving. While digital media allows museums to reach a broader audience, the broader audience means that there are more diverse opinions to be heard. Do we allow all voices to be heard in the digital space or are we ethically bound by our ideas of cultural right/wrong to control ethics in digital dialogue? I would like to hear all voices, the museum in a digital space is not just tearing down the doors and allowing more power to the public, they are tearing down the walls. The conduct of museums in a digital age is bound by ethical obligations developed in the pre-digital era.

  7. at01lang says:

    The scope of ethical questions confronting the social media environment in general (in terms of what is private, what information is saved, what information is monitored, etc.) presents several considerations for museums that look to integrate this more into their platforms and activities. When people post, respond or use these platforms, they want reassurances that they will have certain protections. I think the idea of museums using social media activity to collect information about guests (as we read about at the very beginning of the semester) can become an ethical issue museums will be called to address given people’s concerns of being monitored but also the fears of data hacks or data stealing. Museums will need to take steps to reassure people they are acting ethically and that people’s information will not be used against them as such information gathering becomes more and more a reality for many institutions, including cultural non-profits.

    • pnorman02 says:

      I think in this case, transparency would be very important for reassuring your visitors that the museum is acting ethically. Being upfront and honest about data collecting and what the data is being collected creates a safe and trusting environment for museum guests.

  8. juliafell17 says:

    I think that inferred consent of use and inherent publicity when posting on social media platforms could cause problems in the future and possibly already is. Although most people realize that once they’ve hit “enter” on a tweet, it no longer belongs to them and there is no way to truly delete it once it’s on the internet, there will always be some who put up a fuss after posting something that they look back on with regret. Although this problem extends far past museums, any institution with a twitter handle or other social media account can face problems when interacting with a semi-anonymous, semi-responsible public.

  9. thankyouluke says:

    Ethics are indeed tricky! Part of my wants to say just do what is right! But, it is never that simple. I feel as thought the best thing to do when addressing an object that has the potential of being controversial is to be transparent and in contact with all concerned parties. Additionally, museums should try to think of their collections, not as their own, but the public’s. Far too often, museums think of the collection as “theirs” and the people are privileged to see it. That is not how we should work. As professionals, we need to constantly reevaluate what we are doing to ensure we are serving as ethically as possible.

  10. saraumland says:

    Ethics is such a delicate line to step on or across. As we have seen in other situations, ethical codes are perceived by institutions and what they see fit best. Core values and missions help to shape moral judgement of an institution or not develop it. The question that arises is how much information does a museum need? Age, gender, general demographics by zip code seem to be enough but the push continues for commercial information and, even more, personal information. If museums are supposed to be for everyone so why do we need so much information that that separates us.

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