The Ethics of Interpretation

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?

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13 Responses to The Ethics of Interpretation

  1. joshdtaylor says:

    It is a difficult problem museums face. On one hand, it is important to return the artifacts back to the rightful culture but what if that area is in a war zone? it is hard to tell if cultural object can survive and if they are safer elsewhere until the conflict is resolved. Also, I feel that when using objects from a culture one has to consult the culture in respect. That way a respectful interpretation can be used for education purposes.

  2. peteglog says:

    My first reaction is that museums need to have transparency and open lines of communication between themselves and the public. In the reading, there was a lack of communication and utter lack of respect and understanding between two cultural groups.

  3. kwebberj says:

    The idea of considering not just what you take but what you give back is very compelling to me. It reminds me of an archaeological dig that happened in a town I lived in–it had been conducted a few decades before and none of the locals knew what had been found, seen any reports from the dig, or otherwise heard from the archaeologists again. It felt like a frustrating situation to be in, and wouldn’t make a town likely to welcome future studies of that nature.

  4. at01lang says:

    I am intrigued by the idea of not using the first person when speaking about another culture, in part because it makes truly evident the need to surrender certain authority as a museum, curator or interpreter when discussing cultures not one’s own. This brings up the continual debate as to what museums can say about other groups or whether certain people are the proper people to lead such discussion. As with ethics, this represents an area (in this case, museum interpretation and exhibition) for which there are guidelines and leading views but no hard-set views, indeed as there cannot be. To the degree ambiguity here can lead to confusion in how to approach the issues, it also allows for flexibility to best interpret different cultures with different characteristics and needs. As for steps to be taken to balance exhibition with proper respect, I think it is key to keep this flexibility in mind so that any attempt to look at a distinct culture begins from a new template of understanding for that culture, rather than a common template of “this is how we interpret other cultures.” By saying in this instance one path is followed, and in this another avenue is more appropriate, by fully studying the many angles and embracing the flexibility of an individual response, museums can move away from a position of assuming a first person authority perspective, and instead be a contributing, educational voice.

  5. juliafell17 says:

    When interpreting cultural objects, I think it is imperative to consult people who belong to those cultures before doing anything else. Optimally, once an exhibit is mounted, also having docents from said culture to further interpret and explain objects to curious patrons can go a long way in establishing a respectful and educational relationship between the museum and the people of a particular culture.

  6. thankyouluke says:

    This was a wonderful read! As far as what steps could be taken to balance education respect, I think it would be most ethical to work with a group or individual closely connected with the objects in question. In doing so, not only does a museum ensure that it is acting with respect towards the objects, but also presenting them in a way that is culturally and/or historically accurate.

  7. saraumland says:

    I like the idea of not taking but giving back. So often we are encouraged to “take something away” after seeing an exhibit, but instead, the end message really should be “what we can give back”. Museums are great places for opportunities to help and bring awareness of the Native communities in the region.

  8. karissa430 says:

    I think you can maintain respect for cultural groups by always including their voices and opinions in your institution. Collaborative or co-curated exhibitions aren’t just the answer – we need to tread the collaborative nature of community curated projects throughout all aspects of museums. Working with cultural groups and building respect is long and hard, but I think it’s essential to do in order to maintain accountability and integrity.

  9. kiewma93 says:

    I agree we should be giving back to the cultures we are exhibiting. I think it is important that we teach our constituents responsibility for these objects as well.

  10. gretchensorin says:

    Ms. Lemmon’s comments are interesting. They suggest that she thinks curators will always be from outside of the culture being interpreted and never a part of it. Is it important to ask people who are part of a culture to share in the interpretation?

    • I had the same reaction. What if an exhibit was co-curated with people who are a part of the culture? I feel like using first-person interpretation in that situation would emphasize that the museum included the input and voices of the people of that culture. Not only is this more ethical, but it also increases the museum’s ethos and trustworthiness.

    • colette lemmon says:

      Just for clarification, I was not suggesting that individuals from a culture not share in the interpretation, nor that there aren’t professional curators who are of the cultural group they interpret. Simply that those who are NOT of the culture they are interpreting present their perspectives in the correct frame of reference and acknowledge that their interpretations are distinct and carry a different sort of authority from those who are.

  11. colette lemmon says:

    Thoughtful comments across the board. Just for clarification, we do use the first person in most of our exhibits – quotes from artists, from poets, scholars, etc. who are OF the culture in addition to other perspectives. And we do include advisors, board members, co-curators etc. who are of the culture. The point I was trying to make was that my voice as a curator, whether it be writing about war or about another culture will, regardless of experience and attention to detail always be that of an outsider. Yes, its a valid perspective but not to be confused with that of those who live the experience. And we (and our visitors) also need to be aware that those first person voices are speaking for themselves as individuals, not necessarily representative of a nation or entire cultural group.

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