Museum ethics codes are written outside of the realm of legality to protect the integrity of the museum while respecting its collection. Give Me My Father’s Body by Kenn Harper brings attention to the battle led by an Inuk man to reclaim his father’s body which had been put on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York without the consent of the family. This act of desecration of the dead crossed the line between public education through ethnic interpretation and disrespecting the individuals of the ethnicity that was being interpreted.
I spoke with Colette Lemmon, Curator of the Iroquois Indian Museum, about her views of exhibiting cultural objects while attaining codes of ethics. Ms. Lemmon has experience with acting as a curator and consultant for numerous Native American art collections at various institutions and The National Vietnam War Museum. She believes that it is important never to use the first person when speaking about another culture. It is appropriate to exhibit cultural objects through an anthropological point of view, but care should be taken to remain respectful toward the group of individuals whose story that object tells.
Exhibits should not only be about what you can take from a culture, whether you are handling the stories of Native people or war veterans, but what you can give back to that culture. What steps can be taken in order to exhibit cultural objects for public education while maintaining respect for the members of the culture?