13 Mar

A new balance? Ethics and museums in 2015

Helen Wilkinson

The Museum Consultancy was pleased to have chance to respond to the Museums Association’s consultation on the review of the Code of Ethics last month. We’ve all been involved in the development and interpretation of earlier versions of the Code of Ethics from the inside, so it was interesting to take an external perspective on this revision.

Codes of Ethics have to be living documents, evolving in response to changing circumstances and new understandings of what museums are and can be. No statement of our shared ethical principles should ever be seen as fixed and definitive.

That said, some areas of the current code still seem absolutely robust. There is really no need, for example, to revisit the balance between access and preservation as the consultation suggested. The current code makes it clear that it is the job of a museum to reconcile the desirability of preservation with the obligation to optimise access: weighing the requirements of access against the requirements of preservation is at the heart of what museums do and an area where people who work in museums make finely balanced decisions every day of their working lives.

But in other areas, thinking and practice has moved on. Return of material to places and peoples of origin is more common now than when the current code was written, so the new code could take a more positive line. Museums can engage with requests for return positively, seeing them as an opportunity to build relationships with a source community and so enrich their work. We stressed in our response that museums should make every effort to reach a conclusion that is acceptable to the community of origin and to the museum’s local stakeholders, so that it can be the basis of long-term cross cultural understanding and dialogue. And there are good examples where this has happened – so thanks to the pioneering work of a small number of museums, something which used to cause much angst no longer seems so difficult.

If return of material is an area where museums feel more confident than they did a decade ago, other areas seem more contentious than before. In 2015, freedom of speech seems newly problematic – from social media to journalism to universities. In a year when freedom of speech has become no longer an academic question but a matter of life and death, what are the implications of this for museums, especially those hosting co-curated displays?

We think that firm guidance may be premature, as this is still an emerging area and practical experience is very limited. It is important that a wide range of people and opinions have the opportunity to contribute to museum content. Museums should aim for a wide range of views rather than taking a narrow editorial line – more BBC than newspaper, perhaps.

But what if some of those views are contentious or deeply offensive to others? Can museums allow partner organisations to cause offence within (or on) their walls? In principle, we think the answer is yes. Museums should not attempt to censor or control what people want to say. Freedom of speech, within the limits of the law, should be a fundamental value for museums. And freedom of speech should be more important than the risk of offending a particular individual or group.

But of course museums should also promote equality, diversity and human rights – values we stressed elsewhere in our consultation response. So, what to do when freedom of speech seems to come into conflict with an equality imperative? Perhaps that will be the most difficult balancing act for museums in the next decade.

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