“Museums don’t do anything!” and other Finnish views on museum ethics

Posted 2017-03-28 20:43:48

I sometimes ponder on how privileged we museum professionals are. Our access to cultural heritage – treasures really – is quite unique and we get to decide which part of it are worth preserving and how that something should be presented. It is we who can restrict others’ access to fragile and rare artefacts and cultural heritage sites, often in the name of preservation for the future generations. Many of us even carry out research on those treasures or at least have a say on what gets scholarly attention. All this gives us great power in society, namely the power of storytelling. Our choices make a difference on what gets attention. With a wealth of possible stories to be told, which are the ones we choose to highlight?

This is all fine, of course, as we are professionals trained to take such drastic responsibilities, and we trust that our colleagues are likewise capable for the complicated tasks and build their decision-making on similar grounds. The public should as well recognize this and trust that common cultural heritage matters are in good hands.

The Code of Ethics for Museums helps our profession in securing vital internal coherence and gaining external trust. Thus outlined Janne Behm, D.Th, the need of such a code to us Finnish museum people at the Museum Ethics 2.0 seminar a few years back.
This event was something of a start to a collective critical reading of the beloved code. Its results were then collected in a publication and the discussions continued afterwards on-line in the form of 8 blog posts by prominent Finnish museum professionals. The full blog posts are to be found in English in ICOM Finland’s blog, which is where I strongly recommend everybody to go for some brilliant discussion.

You’ll find deliberations for instance about whether the code places too big a burden on our shoulders and steers us towards exhaustive sense of duty. How about the bits regarding non-commercial nature of museum work? Should they be somehow rephrased to better meet today’s environment? You’ll also find thoughts on collections as historical proof of the influence of museums and as capital that only memory organizations can possess. Surely this potential is not going to be wasted in today’s society very much geared to seek for fast profits?

How about the fact that items in museums really are precious objects of research? How much research on this wealth does your museum carry out or facilitate to meet the demand that museums really should produce information and open it to the public? Is that done on individualistic basis or according to museum’s stated collection policy, which should state the research value of artifacts? Do you have a research policy? And again, what stories are chosen or dared to bring forth?

Communities, then? How do we interact with the people surrounding us? Yes, we definitely have an educative role and other goodwilling roles, where we are the ones giving plenty to people, but surely this isn’t a one way street. Mutually profitable cooperation with the various actors out there is very possible. Indeed it is a must these days, as museums are expected widen their funding basis. Could it be like a good romantic relationship, where both parties share, trust, take responsibilities and eventually benefit?

The code also underlies museums’ duty for cooperation with public actors in identification, authentication and valuation of things for instance. Indeed, we can and do help certain authorities there. But how about taking a broader view and thinking about how our expertise could be shared with social and health sector for instance?

Then there’s the rule about collaborating with communities from which their collections originate. Sure, this cannot be overlooked, but listening is one thing and believing or acting upon it another. Is the customer always right? The code seems to warn about hurting anyone in stating so clearly that communities should be respected according to their wishes and conditions. Is there a hint of postcolonial shame lurking there? Good that dignity, tolerance, multiculturalism and other higher values in accordance with UN’s Declaration of Human Rights are also emphasized in the code, thus paving ground for various interpretations and expressions.

And why does the code state that museums act in a legal manner? Isn’t this odd to highlight such an obvious thing? Following the law is hardly a choice, let alone an ethical one. But really, does any museum truthfully fully conform to this rule about operating fully in a legal manner? Think about ambiguous copyright and personal data laws, which, if followed fully, would destroy the foundation of all collection work. Rather than pledging us to conform “fully to international, regional, national and local legislation and treaty obligations”, should the rule be modified to say something value-based about how museums must promote justice, particularly from the perspective of their key task and the related questions? Or how about just omitting the word “fully” from the wording?

Then there’s the fact that museums operate in a professional manner. Do they really? “Museums do not operate or do anything at all!” states the author in his comment on the last but not least of the rules. It is people who operate whilst doing their job and getting paid for it. In doing so they have to keep in mind 16 prohibitions and 18 subsections if they respect the code. It’s a list of musts and thou shall nots of somewhat biblical character. What’s the point of all these obligations and duties? Do the goals of our work become evident enough from the code?

All in all the authors, whose names you’ll find below and whose texts you should really read before jumping into any conclusions based on my few-line summaries, found plenty to discuss about in the code, and many of them ended up wishing for some kind of renewal. Well good that they did, isn’t it!

I surely look forward to continuing discussion along these lines in the upcoming “Difficult Issues” conference.

More information: http://icomsuomi.blogspot.fi/2017/01/discussion-ab...


Author: Eero Ehanti, Chairman of ICOM Finland and Member of the Editorial board of the “Difficult Issues” conference

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