The Evolving Role of Ethics in Museums

The application of ethics in museums is something that has become more prominent in recent years. The AAM code of ethics was not implemented until 1991, a mere 24 years ago. Through the understanding and enlightenment of past museum events, the implementation of these standards was very much needed.

The book “Give Me My Father’s Body” told a story of an Eskimo community; this community was manipulated and separated for the sake of “science”. While learning and expanding our horizons is always important, and we should make an effort to understand other cultures, this was gone about in a very detached way. The Eskimos that were brought to New York City were treated as a display, not given proper quarters to stay, and were basically ignored when they needed medical attention. Their culture was viewed as inferior not only by American Museum of Natural History visitors, but also by the anthropologists that requested their presence. Empathy was lacking, and a true bond between the cultures was not able to be formed because of this.

I found the story of Minik to be emotional, and hurtful as a fellow human being. His father was all he felt he had left in the world, and he lost him in entirety because of neglect and an apparent refusal to treat Minik or his father’s body with the respect that is due to any human being. While it was disappointing to learn that practices such as this occurred in the past, it is refreshing to know that the need for a code of ethics was recognized and put into place. In speaking with Erin Richardson, a CGO alumna, she expressed how important ethics are in the field and how we always have further to go. She stated, “Museums are about people, and if we don’t treat people well then why are we here?”

My question is, are we addressing the issues of the past that suffered from not having this code of ethics? And is this code being updated often enough?

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8 Responses to The Evolving Role of Ethics in Museums

  1. Anna says:

    I feel like we are half addressing the issues of past hurt. I know that there is some work being done but I don’t know, especially in the case of Minik and the other Eskimos that traveled with him, if anything has been done to really make reparations.

  2. welceq51 says:

    The problem I find with ethics is that our ethics are what we find to be ethical, which is not necessarily a universal truth. From an anthropological perspective, it’s a very difficult cross-hairs to be in and it has caused quite a bit of controversy in its vagueness (think Shelburne 1996). To the first question, I am not sure there is anything we can do beyond ensuring those atrocities don’t occur again.

    • armok59 says:

      While I of course do not agree with the actions of the AMNH, I agree that it can be problematic to apply contemporary ethics to past situations. That being said, we should not remove responsibility from the Museum who clearly understood that at least some their actions were wrong. This book illustrates the ways that museums can play a role in determining what is considered ethical behavior. As institutions, we must keep this in mind as we go forward and develop our own codes for ethics that guide what we collect and how we collect it.

  3. shaual96 says:

    The tough thing with this is “How can we effectively evaluate museum exhibits that predate this ethics code?” I think we’ve also spoken before in class about “what is a uniform code of ethics in the museum?” Overtime, museums have created their own codes of ethics. Can this be something reinforced by new boards as they grow over time? I’m wondering if there is a way we can hold museums accountable for these previous exhibits.

  4. peytonktracy says:

    I feel like the very existence of this book proves that we are at least trying to, and more similar efforts would at least offer some justice to these people that didn’t receive the ethical treatment they deserved in their day. I think that the Code of Ethics has a built in system for review whenever it is brought into question is proof that we are more aware than most professionals probably could claim to be in the past. I think that system allows for it to be reviewed as frequently as it needs to be.

  5. lucega96 says:

    Great post! The cynical part of me, particularly after reading Give Me My Father’s Body, feels that an ethical code at the time AMNH acquired Minik’s father’s body would not have had much impact. The events of the book occurred just shy of the paradigm shift in museums and major social movements of the 1960s and 1970s that would alter the way Americans viewed minorities (to some extent). At that time, museums were vessels for study and spectacle. The paternalistic attitude and indifference to Eskimo culture and, essentially, human rights that the AMNH acted in was not unusual. Now I think museums in particular are increasingly aware of avoiding such actions. Less so because of the code of ethics, which is vague, and more so because there are new philosophies dictating both museums and nonprofit organizations in general. As Erin said, now museums are for the people and held in the people’s public trust. If a museum disrespects the public trust, it doesn’t deserve to exist.

  6. emily_pfeil says:

    Like Peyton said, I think that this book is a good indication that we are on the right track. It’s important to move forward and make sure we are treating new exhibits sensitive material with the respect it deserves so as to not repeat our mistakes from the past. I think it is difficult to look back on what previous museum staff has done, in times when our ethics and standards were not on par with those today.

  7. corwhe56 says:

    Having an overall code of ethics for museums is wonderful and a much needed step that should have occurred long before 1991. What is also necessary to insure that museums are remaining ethical in their practices is adopting their own code of ethics, and reviewing it often. It could be part of the museum’s strategic plan to review and make sure the museum is following its code of ethics every year.

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