Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Guest post: The ethical museum, by David Fleming

Image taken from Twitter @IcomOfficiel
I would like to begin by quoting from Janet Marstine’s book entitled The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics (2011, page xxiii):

“The traditional museum ethics discourse…is unable to meet the needs of museums and society in the twenty-first century”.

I will continue by quoting the statement on ethical behaviour that my Trustees at National Museums Liverpool (NML) discussed just last week:

NML statement on ethical considerations

In several areas of our work, as we find ourselves more and more reliant on funding from other than our own democratically-elected Government, NML’s commitment to behaving in an ethical manner at all times is leading us to consider carefully what decisions we should make.

In areas such as accepting sponsorship, hirings of our functions spaces, and investments, it is important that NML is seen by our stakeholders to be doing our best to make ethically sound decisions. In order to help NML in this we have created a staff Ethics Committee to advise the Executive Team and, in turn, NML Trustees.

We must always remember than NML is perceived throughout the world as a museum service with the highest ethical standards. NML created and leads, for example, the Federation of International Human Rights Museums (FIHRM), which gives us a prominent and influential role in the field of human rights, and which has grown out of our creation in 2007 of the renowned, widely admired, International Slavery Museum. As we expand our global role and influence we are likely to encounter dilemmas, as have other cultural institutions, in terms of with which companies and nations we do business.

One can find reasons to oppose NML activity in every nation on earth on human rights grounds, on the basis of lack of freedom of speech, or political corruption, or the lack of democracy, the use of child labour, gender inequalities, homophobia, for example.

For example, the countryeconomy.com website carries a table published by Transparency International entitled the Corruption Perceptions Index, which indicates that the highest levels of public-sector corruption on earth can be found in North Korea and Somalia, followed by Afghanistan and Sudan. Other nations with high corruption ratings include Angola, South Sudan and Libya. By contrast, Denmark, Sweden and Finland are perceived to have the least public-sector corruption.

Another example of this kind of measurement is the World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters without Borders, which indicates that press freedoms are great in Finland, the Netherlands and Norway, while they are almost invisible in Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan. They are very restricted in Syria, China and Vietnam.

Such rankings are no more than indicators of where problems might lie from an ethical point of view. We need to be wary of accepting such findings at face value, but they give us clues. Ultimately, no nation on earth is free from criticism of one kind or another*. We believe that NML needs to engage with museum colleagues in all nations if we are to promote dialogue and support them in seeking the freedoms that we often take for granted in the UK.

Controversy accompanies the acceptance by some cultural institutions of financial support from some commercial companies. Sometimes this is based upon the business the companies are in (eg oil); sometimes it is based upon business practices (eg the use of child labour).

Association with political parties is not always simple, either, and in recent times NML has had to consider approaches from some parties to hire our premises – which approaches such we accept, and which should we reject?

Suffice to say that NML considers very carefully decisions about working with partners, entering into commercial agreements, investing, or accepting sponsorship, and all such decisions are based upon our assessment of the ethical dimensions, ensuring compliance with the UK Museums Association’s Code of Ethics for Museums.

* The UK is a surprisingly lowly 38th on the World Press Freedom Index, immediately below Tonga, Belize and Lithuania, and some way below Ghana, Czech Republic, Namibia and Estonia, for example.


Behaving in an ethical fashion may be the most burning issue of the day in museums, worldwide. As we advance into the 21st century we are subject to a host of pressures, many of which, as suggested by the quotation from Janet Marstine’s book, would have been unfamiliar in the traditional, 19th and 20th century museum. Museums generally are expected by society to behave in an ethical manner; they have what we might call a ‘cultural authority’; they are trusted to present a fair and just version of whatever their subject matter might be; and this now goes way beyond the ethics of managing collections correctly.

In her book, Janet Marstine writes that:

“The progressive museum is undergirded and invigorated by deep engagement with the key ethical issues of the day. Museums that are driven by a dynamic ethics discourse have a clear sense of the values that their decision-making conveys and continually assess and reassess this alignment with the communities they serve…The process empowers museums to change because it builds public trust through democracy, transparency and relevance.” (page 5)

Museums have often responded to public expectations by claiming that they are ‘neutral’ places, free from bias or opinion. Museums have, somehow, strived to set themselves above aspects of life such as politics, and make the public believe that it can expect to find in a museum is the dispassionate truth, free from bias This deliberate alienation from society, this elevation to a point that lies above the mundanity of everyday life, is an affectation that runs deep within the museum psyche. The public expectation that museums should be free from bias is reflected in responses to Leicester University’s Department of Museum Studies’ Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) entitled Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum:

“…museums should not deliberately set out to shock visitors. Museums should present the facts and let people draw their own conclusions”

“a museum…should not seek out emotion from visitors through leading and politically motivated exhibitions”

“I believe museums should be dispassionate”

“ the answer is for the museum to maintain proper professional standards, dignity and good taste and not give in to questionable populism”

“museums must be dispassionate and it is precisely their objectivity which gives them the right to treat all the subjects and themes while being historically faithful to the facts”

“ I still feel that museums should try and remain neutral”

MOOC 1 – re Ku Klux Klan uniform: “an exhibition…should present history without prejudice”

And finally:

“I’m sure museums never take ethical issues lightly”

I have to say, I often despair at the frequency with which museum professionals state that we are somehow ‘above’ politics and we occupy a Neverland where we all deal in an absolute truth. This is either naiveté of the first order or it is far more sinister than that.

Many of the new pressures derive from the need for museums to earn income, because the sources of funding are, in today’s world, subject to intense scrutiny, the like of which we have never experienced before. Any museum that seeks financial support from the private or corporate sector runs the risk of offending opponents of that corporation’s line of business. Recent examples include protests against the sponsorship of a number of British institutions by BP, which is in the business of making its profits from fossil fuel extraction, and has an imperfect track record with regard to oil spills.  As Sally Yerkovich asks in her book A Practical Guide to Museum Ethics (2016, page 85), “One can ask whether a museum should be concerned about the business reputation of its sponsors”. Yerkovich writes also of “the museum’s integrity and reputation” and of “making sure that public benefit rather than individual or corporate interests prevail” (ibid. Page 97).

Accepting money from some sources might be unethical, but it depends upon one’s views – one person’s unethical behaviour is ok to another. Not everyone agrees that fossil fuel extraction is wrong, or that armaments manufacturing and sale are wrong, or that testing cosmetics on animals is wrong - there are conflicting views about all such issues; as Director of a museum service I have to ensure that it is not simply my personal behavioural code that dictates how the museum service makes decisions.

Recently, NML staff debated whether to accept the hiring of one of our conference spaces for a seminar from a political party that many of us really do not like, including me, because it has about it more than a whiff of racism; some staff felt very strongly that we should not accept the booking. Here is what one member of staff wrote to me:

“I have to be honest and say I’m shocked that we would be considering accepting this booking…Admittedly they are not overtly racist but they are a divisive party with a negative public profile. Do we not have concerns that it would taint our own reputation…? I’m embarrassed for us…I think you probably know that’s not the right thing” (emails from unnamed member of staff, May 2016).

Among my responses was this:

“We live in a democracy and until (political party name) say that they don’t believe in democracy then NML has to put up with them, I think.”

Ultimately, we accepted the booking, with the proviso that the political party in question sought no publicity or gain from the occasion that might cause the public to believe that there is some kind of link between it and NML.

On another occasion we paid a fee to a UK  museum in order to hire from it an exhibition, which turned out to have been sponsored by and named after a corporate sponsor which at the time was engaged in building a military railway in a part of the world which is at the centre of severe ethnic and military conflict. NML had to stifle any personal views staff might have had about this, and find an appropriate route that did not compromise our reputation. In the end we did not hire the exhibition, and we negotiated an alternative with the museum concerned.

Nonetheless, it would be entirely dishonest of me to claim my personal ethical code has no bearing whatsoever on the decisions I make, or on the policies and strategies pursued at NML. Of course it does, and I never pretend otherwise, unlike some people who work in museums. Pretending to be neutral is unethical; pretending that the museum has no bias and contains nothing other than scholarly expositions is unethical.

I’m not going to concentrate my talk on the ethics of collection care, which have always been with us; but of the newer issues, brought to prominence by new pressures:

I want to talk for a little while about human rights and museums.
One of the more remarkable trends in modern museum thinking, about their role and their approaches to ethics, is the growing interest in the analysis and promotion of human rights. This has come about for a variety of reasons. The notion of intangible heritage has come to prominence; museums are not solely about the physical detritus of society and nature – they are also about beliefs, customs, languages. Moreover, the notion of the curator/priest has come under attack for several reasons: because this risks leading to museums that are irrelevant to most people, most of the time; because it is now more widely understood that people themselves, not just objects, are repositories of evidence; because it is now accepted widely that public involvement enriches museum content; because the falsehood of faux neutrality, of the museum devoid of opinion and bias, has been exposed.

The modern curator will be skilled in liaising with the public, not just with colleagues and textbooks. He/she understands that sometimes the most effective curatorship is by the public, not by the professional. He/she will seek broad audiences, and will seek to make displays that are emotional, rather than dispassionate. These are requirements that are additional to the need to have knowledge about collections and academic disciplines; they are not a substitute.
And so we have museums that behave differently from their forbears; that try to achieve different things that are more likely to involve themselves in controversy, in disputes, in campaigns, in politics – because museums exist in real time and in real life, not just in academe.

There are three key Declarations by members of ICOM’s international committee on management that indicate this direction of travel. In 2009 in the Mexican city of Torreon, INTERCOM – International Committee for Museum Management members made this Declaration:

INTERCOM believes that it is a fundamental responsibility of museums, wherever possible, to be active in promoting diversity and human rights, respect and equality for people of all origins, beliefs and background.
Four years later, in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, a joint Declaration was made by INTERCOM and Federation of International Human Rights Museums (FIHRM) members:

INTERCOM and FIHRM reject all forms of intolerance and discrimination and call upon governments in all nations to respect and celebrate different political, sexual and religious preferences and to encourage their museum communities to explore issues, free from the fear of censorship or political pressure.
The Rio Declaration was made as a direct response to reports that the Government of the Russian Federation was in the process of enacting anti-homosexual legislation.

In 2014 in Taipei, capital city of the Republic of China (Taiwan) INTERCOM and FIHRM members again came together to agree this Declaration:

Museums make a central contribution to the democratisation of nations by encouraging free debate and confronting authoritarian versions of the truth.

The Charter of the Social Justice Alliance for Museums reads:

We celebrate the incalculable value to society of museums and their collections.
We support the concept of social justice – we believe that the whole of the public is entitled to benefit from access to the resources museums contain and the ideas they provoke. We pledge to lead the fight for access to museums for all – this is the essence of social justice (6).

This is bold positioning by international gatherings of museum professionals. The Declarations show how far museums have travelled since the days when they tended to avoid controversy. At the annual FIHRM conference held at Te Papa, New Zealand in 2015 one speaker, Mari Osthaug Moystad of Glomdalsmuseet, Norway, noted that when museums address human rights issues “conflict is inevitable”. Richard Sandell of the University of Leicester, UK, referred to “curatorial uncertainty” in this area of our work, while Steve La Hood of Story Inc Ltd, New Zealand, commented that “we do take sides”. Luisa de Pena of the Dominican Resistance Memorial Museum, Dominican Republic, warned that museums must be brave about human rights issues or “we will disappear into the mist of indifference”.

A further key statement was made in the UK Museums Association’s Museums Change Lives document:

"…museums can be ambitious about their role in society. All museums, however they are funded and whatever their subject matter, can support positive social change."

There are numerous examples of museums around the world that endeavour to match up to these expectations, that involve themselves in the difficult decisions needed when dealing with human rights and contested histories, that take positive action.

The Ethics of Overseas Working

This is about as contentious as it gets in museums. There are political flashpoints, human rights problems, and repatriation issues all over the world, and museums may feel virtually paralysed in terms of what they are permitted to do from an ethical standpoint.

In essence, museums in western democracies (if I may call them that, remembering that Germany under the National Socialists was a western democracy; and then there’s Donald Trump in the USA, and UKIP in Britain; so let’s not get too smug or complacent) struggle with a host of dilemmas, many of them originating in imperial and colonial behaviour, on which attention is focused largely through the power of public opinion, and emphasised because of the nature of modern communications and the growth of English as the global lingua franca.

On the day I write this, my Twitter feed alerts me to human rights issues in Canada (“Generations of residents on First Nations reserves have grown up without clean or safe drinking water”); China (“’Inside the Chinese Closet’ exposes hard choices for LGBT people”); Congo (“Murder by peacekeepers: uncovering serious crimes committed by Congo troops”); Egypt (“A human rights lawyer and two judges charged for proposing an anti-torture law”); Hong Kong (“14 groups plan protest…today over censorship of prodemocracy star”); Lebanon (“Less than 3% of secondary-age Syrian refugee children are enrolled in public schools”); Malawi(“Hunting for humans: Malawian albinos murdered for their bones”); Mexico(“Yecinia Armenta finally free after 4 years of injustice behind bars!”); Papua New Guinea (“statement condemning police shootings of protesting students in Port Moresby”); Russia and Ukraine (“In Ukraine conflict, reporting on both sides’ abuses can get journalist labelled “terrorist” ”); Serbia (“End seclusion, isolation & neglect of children with disabilities”); UK (“ Disabled girl, 11, handcuffed and put in leg restraints by Sussex Police” “Why was an 11-year-old girl put in leg restraints & a spit hood by police?”); USA (“The FBI wants your Internet Records Without a Warrant”); with praise for Norway’s passing of legislation to permit transgender people to self-declare their appropriate legal gender (in the past, they needed to undergo compulsory psychiatric evaluations, diagnoses and sterilisation surgeries in order to be legally recognised as who they are).

Yesterday, the ‘Human Rights Watch Daily Brief’ headlines read: “Murder by peacekeepers in Central African Republic; shameful UN U-turn onSaudi; mining riches help fund Taliban; Sudan protests on Darfur; ”travesty of justice” in Tajikistan; Shia militias accused of Iraq torture; keeping refugees away from EuropeAlgeria jail term”.

We have the ‘Lists of shame’ produced to indicate how corrupt a country is, or how free the press is from political control or censorship. Invariably these lists throw up the same suspects – Afghanistan, Angola, Eritrea, Laos, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Vietnam, among them.*

Truly, there is nowhere in the world that is free from accusations of political misbehaviour that results in human rights abuses. This is significant for museums because they are institutions that are pledged to behave ethically, and yet human rights abuse and ethical behaviour are hardly easy bedfellows. Consequently, there will always be questions asked as to why a museum has particular relationships in particular countries, especially when these relationships involve money changing hands, or when the museums appear to be slavishly following political imperatives at the expense of other considerations, such as human rights issues.

And then we have repatriation. Probably the most celebrated international disagreement is that between the Greek government and the British Museum over the claims of the former to reclaim the marbles removed from the Parthenon by the Earl of Elgin in the early 19th century. This controversy has been running for a long time, and there are few signs that it will be resolved in the near future.**

At the moment the Government of Egypt is subject to a great deal of scrutiny over, for example, its treatment of journalists – how does this square with its often-cited requests to museums in Europe and the USA to repatriate Egyptian antiquities? Is the Egyptian Government’s attitude towards freedom of speech a factor in repatriation discussions, or should it be?

Other instances of cultural repatriation have also caused controversy, and there are those who argue that even human remains should not be repatriated (for example, to New Zealand or Australia) without guarantees that the remains will be cared for in a museum setting and available for research.

NML has always had a positive attitude towards genuine claims for repatriation, e.g. of human remains, but we have said that we will only treat with representatives of democratically-elected governments. If we had a request from, say Vietnam, where a couple of weeks ago it was announced that the incumbent Prime Minister (Nguyen Xuan Phuc) received 99% of the vote in his constituency, then we would probably think at least twice. Is this right? Are we applying ‘western’ values inappropriately? As a national museum service, are we complying with the wishes of the British Government that funds us, and should we?

NML has a staff Ethics Committee which advises the organisation how to behave ethically. In our Strategic Plan we have an Appendix entitled ‘A Statement on Ethical Considerations’, which concludes by stating that NML complies with the UK Museums Association’s Code of Ethics (which was agreed unanimously at the Annual General Meeting of the MA in Birmingham in 2015).

NML created the Federation of International Human Rights Museums (FIHRM) and the Social Justice Alliance for Museums (SJAM) precisely because of our commitment to working ethically and across international boundaries, and  membership of both of these organisations helps ensure that ethical behaviour is a high priority every time we make a decision. Transparency seems to me to be a key to behaving ethically, and I have found that discourse and debate are likely to lead to mutually understood decision-making. It should not need a Freedom of Information Request to elicit details of relationship-building for a publicly-funded cultural institution. Ethical behaviour is of concern to everyone in society; it should not be confused with commerciality, or be regarded with the same confidentiality.

*On the Corruption Perceptions Index 2015 website which is run by Transparency International, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, New Zealand , Netherlands and Norway are the nations perceived to suffer from  the least public sector corruption. According to the website, more than 6 billion people live in a country which has a “serious corruption problem” and “ not one single country, anywhere in the world, is corruption-free”

** for more on the issue of repatriation, and some of the arguments for and against, see my article in the Encyclopaedia of Global Archaeology entitled ‘The Encyclopaedic Museum’.

David Fleming addressed the joint meeting of FIHRM – Federation of International Human Rights Museums and INTERCOM – International Committee for Museum Management at the ICOM General Conference in Milan on 4 July 2016.

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