"Many considerations to make – many needs to balance"

Gepostet 2017-04-11 20:38:27

In this blogpost I would like to make just a few comments on a large and important working field in today´s museums: co-operation with the local society, working as dynamic actors for social change and with sensitive, taboo-laden subjects. Working with difficult issues is demanding for the museum employees and my research has now for some years been concentrated on professional ethics. But let me start with a more general introduction.

Photo: Arve Lindvig, Vest-Agder-museet

Since 20 years or so, cultural history museums have a more openly stated responsibility to discuss and debate sensitive, socially relevant topics that most people do not know of, or would rather not talk about. Such topics may be related to war, abuse, institutions, human rights, freedom of speech or minorities in the community. Common to them all is that they can evoke strong reactions amongst visitors and public view when exhibited. The reactions are often not predictable, but are to a certain extent desired. The audience shall be challenged to reflect, discuss and reason their way through to new viewpoints, new knowledge and, hopefully, new attitudes.

An effective way to initiate such processes is the use of personal narratives that touch and arouse emotions. This means that the museum employee must work closely with individuals who contribute with their personal and subjective account to the exhibition. To be able to put these subjective accounts into a larger, historically or socially relevant perspective, the museum employee often collaborates with external consultants who can provide expertise and verifiable, more objective information, to the topic. In a collaboration processes with both individuals - who often share traumatic memories - and external consultants - which can have a clear idea of how their research results should be used - the museum employee meets many moral challenges. It is these moral challenges this thesis will be discussing.

My research focuses on the following: What are the moral challenges employees at a museum of cultural history faces in dealing with sensitive, contemporary-related exhibitions that involve external collaboration, how are they handled and how should they be handled? My starting point is thus the museums employees and the framework in which they work, and the needs that become visible during the specific projects.


Central moral challenges

As the central moral challenges for museum employees in collaboration with individuals and consultants, the following considerations have been pointed out: a) the individual's needs versus the needs of the society, b) the individual's subjective truth versus the museum employee needs to convey a more objective truth, c) own skills versus external – i.e. the consultants - competence, and d) personal judgment versus the establishment of guidelines. Two of these, the first and the last of these four, will be explained in the following sentences.

In relation to the balance between the individual's needs versus the needs of society, my analysis have shown that the starting point for the work of the exhibits was a desire to recognize forgotten groups of people or individuals, based on the assumption that it will contribute to the development of the community to allow as many different voices as possible to be heard. The starting point was thus largely directed towards the society and the fulfillment of social duties. This changed when the practical cooperation with individuals started. The focus shifted gradually to the individual's needs, meaning the wish to give a person one voice to lift him or her up and forward. The more empathy that was felt with the person and the better one came to know them, the stronger the focus became on the person's needs instead of the need of the other parties. Here the personal meeting was crucial. Even if the employee did not lose the framework for the work out of sight, he or she stretched longer than originally intended to accommodate what was interpreted as the need of the individual. How one should act as a professional was inferior to the question of how one´s choices would affect the individual. Deontological ethical considerations did albeit play in because they took into account the key requirements one give oneself as a professional, but this was not based on categorical imperatives without making an assessment of the action's consequences for all involved. After an analysis of the consequences of the different choices an action would have, the negative consequences for an individual weighed more than the expected positive impacts to the public or community. The norm to act righteously against individuals was thus always a higher priority than the norm that dictates that one should challenge the public to reflection and learning. In light of my empirical material the focus on individual needs can be justified by the feelings that were triggered in the personal meeting. Informants have put themselves into another's situation and reacted with empathy and a heightened sense of responsibility for the trust they have been shown. Empathy has also led to a greater awareness of the responsibility the employees have towards the unknown audience, i.e. the community, but this comes first at the second instance. The need of The Other as interpreted by the employee from their appearance at the personal meeting was strongest. Thus became the emotions, here understood as cultivated feelings, a trendsetter for the decision making process. Proximity and relational ethical summarization was even more important than consequence ethical considerations.

Also, the moral challenges were related to a trade-off between personal judgement versus the establishment of guidelines. Most assessments of alternative courses of action were characterized by the specific situation one would take decisions in, and here one used - and needed - a large degree of discretion. All of the informants acted as reflective moral agents, even without having full knowledge of the relevant guidelines and rules. The «gut feeling» my informants referred to was in fact a mixture of personality, knowledge and experience, and characterized by a high degree of moral awareness and professionalism. To enable the use of this «gut feeling» for all parties, a degree of discretion was needed. My informants struggled with the uncertainty around not knowing the consequences of each action would have and not to be able to obtain more information before decisions had to be taken. The uncertainty as to what was the appropriate action to take in specific situations, together with constant time pressure for long periods could lead to fatigue and sick leave, and some employees chose to make their own procedures for how to act in certain situations. But these were rejected immediately if proximity ethical considerations dictated a different action.

Summarizing what was behind the prioritization of alternative choices, we see that there were three main factors that were decisive for the subsequent choice of action in a morally challenging situation:

  • 1) The knowledge that was available in the situation when a decision had to be taken and the situation general conditions. In this knowledge the employee's experience, both in general and occupational contexts, entered in.

2) A moral analysis of the consequences of various options for all parties involved. Here one chose one party as the most relevant or considered certain consequences as more desirable than others. Generally one paid the most attention to the party that was considered the weakest or least protected.

3) The employee's personality and how they handled emotions.

Since I defended my PhD about this thesis in 2014, many new projects have been initiated, at museums around the world. At the conference in September I would like to present some later findings, and what they mean for our profession.


Kathrin Pabst (1971) is a german ethnologist with a master degree in European ethnology and a ph.D. in professional ethics. She works as Head of the department for research, collection management and visitor experience at the Vest-Agder-museet in Kristiansand, Norway. Pabsts working experience includes both practical and theoretical sides of working with challenging or sensitive subjects. As an author and lecturer she has hold a larger number lectures and workshops on professional ethics. She is also a member of the Norwegian ICOM board.

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