Peter van Mensch
Towards a methodology of museology
(PhD thesis, University of Zagreb, 1992)


Ethics and museology


The assessment of the purpose of museological understanding involves the question of accountability and consequently the question of ethics. It is remarkable that while the ICOM International Committee for Museology has discussed the general social responsibility of museums and museology at great length, the topic 'ethics and/in museology' has never been considered. The topic has been claimed by the ICOM International Committee for the Training of Personnel, being one of the cornerstones of professionalism.

Ethics and professionalism

Professionalism and ethics are closely connected. Recently the U.S. museums journal Museum News published a special issue on 'Ethics and professionalism' (Museum News 67, 1988, 2). In this issue Stephen Weil asserts that codes of ethics and their enforcement lend credibility to the assertion that museum work is indeed a profession. This position is supported in the same issue by a panel of museum specialists. Public accountability is seen as fundamental to professions in general and to the museum profession in particular. Besides, the museum is generally seen as a social institution par excellence, which gives an extra dimension to the social responsibility of museum staff. The two interdependent pressures of professionalism and social accountability have created the need for some form of instrument to regulate the activities of the curator so as to meet these pressures (Besterman in Bateman et al. 1981: 2). This instrument is the adoption of a well defined morality, rules that ought to govern action. A code of ethics, however, usually has no enforcement power. It is effective only if there is personal commitment and "informed peer pressure" (Malaro 1991: 274).

Museum ethics is a form of professional ethics. Professional ethics is the offshoot of general moral norms adopted by members of the same profession, who may be identified as a group. Strictly speaking ethics is concerned with theory, that is, contemplating as to what is right and just in a given situation. Professional ethics per se consists in searching for common answers to the questions everyone encounters in his or her professional practice, notably to those questions that cannot be answered by turning to existing rules and regulations or to the general norms prevailing in the community. Professional ethics presupposes the existence of an identifiable profession, but at the same time contributes to define a profession. The International Council of Museums defines the museum profession under article 5 of its Statutes as consisting of 'all of the personnel of museums or related institutions who have received a specialized technical or academic training or who possess an equivalent practical experience, and who respect a fundamental code of professional ethics'. In this respect it is important to note that many codes attempt to define the museum profession by putting up a partition against closely related fields of activity with conflicting interests, such as (art) trade. Museum codes unanimously exclude (art)trade from the museum profession. The codes are less unanimously concerning private collecting. According to the most wide spread code of ethics, the ICOM Code of professional ethics, no member of the museum profession should engage him/herself in trade, while he/she is allowed to acquire objects for a personal collection provided some rules are obeyed.

A complete ban on private collecting is usually found in older codes. It has been called 'the old rule' as it was already the cornerstone of museum ethics at the end of the last century (Ullberg & Ullberg 1974). This ban is typical for the first phase of professionalisation in the museum field. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century many leading museum posts were seen as honorary posts or at most a part-time vocation. Until the beginning of the 20th century very often the director of an art museum was an artist. In Germany it was not until 1920 that the last artist as museum director was replaced by an art historian (in Karlsruhe). In view of this, professionalism needed a clear cut separation of the museum profession from the world of connaisseur-collectors, artists, dealers, etc.

After the establishment of museum work as a profession and the recognition of it as a full-time vocation, the rule concerning private collecting could be formulated in a more moderate way. In this respect it is interesting to see that in the newest code of the American Association of Museums (AAM) private collecting is hardly seen as problematic. Even dealing in museum related objects is not forbidden. The text only states: 'It [the museum] should regulate collecting and dealing in objects related to the museum's collection'. Obviously it is not longer considered necessary to protect the profession as such against related activities with conflicting interests.

Besides fencing off the profession from other activities, the codes of ethics were expressions of a tendency to look inward to techniques rather than outward to service. This tendency is reflected firstly by the emphasis on the structure and organisation of the profession and the professional institutes, and secondly by describing the content of the responsibilities. In the course of the twentieth century the focus shifted from structure and organisation towards content. Private collecting, outside employment and consulting are among the main concerns of earlier codes and publications on ethics. There are indications that the 1925 code of the AAM was in direct reaction to a scandal of the time about museum officials taking private commissions in connection with making purchases for their museums (Ullberg in Bateman et al. 1981). The 1978 code of the AAM was a reaction to some scandals concerning dubious de-accessioning practices. Present-day discussions on museum ethics focus on the integrity of objects and collections and the responsibility of museums to the original owners of the objects and the issue of multiculturalism.

The AAM code of 1925 almost exclusively deals with the relationships between the employee, the director and the governing body. Significantly the code of 1925 does not use the term 'professional'. The terms 'professional' and 'museum profession' do appear in the 1978 code in connection with a strong emphasis on the content of the museological responsibilities. It is important to note that the terms 'public service' and 'public trust' are absent from this text, which clearly illustrates afore mentioned inward looking tendency. In the 1990s a new element is topical in the ethics discussion. It is the conflict between the values and objectives of business management and those of the conservation and education based traditional museum approach (Schmidt 1992). Museum professionals have not previously dealt with such business concepts as cost and pricing, contract time requirements, profit requirements, etc. The outside pressure prompted the museum world to re-think its position and to re-define its basic assumptions. Not by coincidence both the British and the American museum associations felt they needed to update their existing codes.

Rules or logic?

To some extent the public interest in any sphere of social activity is protected through enacted legislation. Many responsibilities of museum employees are covered by some national law, some even by international law. However, from the point of view of the museum there is a lack of coherence in the prevailing legislation. This inadequacy is caused not in the least by the chaotic structure of the museum world. So it seems proper that the museum community itself takes the initiative to compensate the absence of a central authority with the power to regulate the professional activities of members of the museum profession.

An ethical code (1) represents an ideal and is morally binding on the members of the group, (2) gives some professional orientation and recommendations for action, and provides guidance especially in ethically ambiguous situations, and (3) clarifies the ethical responsibility of the organisation (Schmidt 1992). As such it (a) protects the museum profession, and (b) provides independent ground when a person, working in museums, is urged by someone to commit an unethical act. It is not a legal document, but more than just a guide for avoiding legal liability (Macdonald 1993). In May 1991 the American Association of Museums adopted a new Code of Ethics. The new code requires each museum, as a condition of membership, to adopt its own code of ethics that applies the Association's Code to its institutional setting (Malaro 1991: 278). The purpose of this provision is to strengthen self-regulation through self-education.

Several authors have pointed at the dangers inherent of a professionalisation which views ethics as dogma (Talley 1993, Hudson 1989). Indeed, rules and regulations that can be applied to each and every case do not exist. 'Intelligent thought, not dogma, is the essence of ethics' (Talley 1993). Such a theoretical examination between various choices is usually anything but simple. Decisions very much depend on the specific conditions which are unique for each situation. This cautious and reflective approach is threatened from two sites. For one part it is threatened from inside by above mentioned tendency of 'museological fundamentalism', i.e. a tendency to define the profession on the basis of rules rather than logic. At the other hand the flexibility and open-mindedness is threatened from outside by the present tendency of a by social groups enforced 'political correctness'.

The socialisation of the museum institute has made it more vulnerable. As people become more educated and more affluent, they are demanding more from museums and they are questioning the quality of governance in museums (Malaro 1991: 276). Paradoxically, codes of ethics help museums to be more aware of their responsibilities, while at the same time giving protection against accusations of political in-correctness. One of the reasons to create an updated code of ethics in the United States was the rapidly changing society producing new political interest groups and fresh demands to and from elected and appointed officials (Macdonald 1993). The new political interest groups (including women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals, environmentalists, religious fundamentalists, etc.) joined forces with the 'old' interest groups, such as former colonies and native (aboriginal) peoples. Their, sometimes conflicting, views and demands have brought increased pressure on the seemingly tranquil world of museums.

Survey of professional codes

The oldest known publication concerning museum ethics dates from 1898 and concerns the field of entomology (Boylan in Bateman et al. 1981). The German museums association seems to be the first national organisation to publish a code of ethics. In 1918 it published a code of behaviour towards art-dealing and the public: Grundsaetze ueber das Verhalten der Mitglieder des Deutschen Museumsbundes gegenueber dem Kunsthandel und dem Publikum (Klausewitz 1985). The American Association of Museums published its first code of ethics in 1925 (Code of ethics for museum workers). Both codes sunk into oblivion. In the United States a number of controversies - mainly concerning de-accessioning practices - brought museum ethics on the agenda again in the beginning of the 1970s. A special issue of Museum News on ethics was published in 1974, containing a reprint of the 1925 code (Museum News 52, 1974, 9). In the same year a study group was set up to review and update the old code. A new code of ethics (or rather a statement on ethics) was published in 1978 (Museum ethics). In the same period a number of other national codes were adopted: New Zealand and the United Kingdom 1977, Canada and Israel 1979, Australia 1982. It is remarkable that apart from Africa all big English speaking countries developed a national code at the same time. It shows a rather intense circulation of ideas favoured by a common language and a common professional 'culture'. On an international level the most important development was the (unanimous) adoption of the Code of professional ethics at the 15th General Conference of the International Council of Museums in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1986). The initiative was taken at at the 11th General Assembly (Copenhagen 1974). The resulting code was mainly based on the codes of the American Association of Museums (1978) and the Museums Association (1983).

The leading role taken by the United States is also evident from the set of specially targeted codes for different professional specialisations within the museum. The first of such codes concerned the work of conservators. In 1963 the American Group of the International Institute for Conservation published its Standards of practice and professional relationships for conservators, also known as the Murray Pease Report. The code was adapted in 1967 and published by the then American Institute for Conservation as Code of ethics for art conservators. A new version was published in 1980 as AIC Code of ethics and standards of practice. Other specialised codes of the American Association of Museums cover the work of the curator (adopted in 1983), the educator (adopted in 1989), the registrar (adopted in 1984), and the public relations officer (adopted in 1984). In 1982 the Museum Store Association adopted its code of ethics for museum shops. In 1991 a Code of ethics for museum training was proposed by the ICOM International Committee for the Training of Personnel.

One activity that at an early stage attracted attention in the discussion on museum ethics is collecting. In 1971 the International Council of Museums published its Ethical acquisition code, which has since been incorporated in the ICOM Code of Professional Ethics of 1986. Collecting archaeological material was already subject of certain rules formulated at the International Conference on Excavations in 1937. In 1976 a code of ethics and standard of research performance was adopted by the US Society of Professional Archaeologists. In these documents collecting policies and especially the danger of destroying evidence by incompetent excavation were extensively dealt with. Collecting in the field of anthropology was dealt with a statement on ethics issued by the American Anthropological Association (1971). Professional codes on the field of collecting are especially important since national legislation usually focuses on export of cultural property rather than transfer and import. Besides, only a few western states have yet ratified the major international legislation on this field, like the UNESCO Convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of cultural property (1970).

Despite the fact that as to collecting natural history and archaeology took the lead, art museums were the first category of museums to formulate a specific code of ethics. In 1966 a special code of behaviour for art museums was adopted by the Association of Art Museum Directors in the United States (updated in 1972 and 1981). In 1980 an ethics code was discussed among the ICOM International Committee of Natural History Museums. In the same year ethics appeared as the central issue at the meeting of the ICOM International Committee of Ethnography Museums. Whereas the ethnography committee returned to the theme regularly, ethics seems to have disappeared from the agenda of the natural history committee.

The University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania was perhaps the first to adopt an individual museum ethical policy (Boylan 1976: 169). Its 1st April 1970 Declaration was to be followed by policy statements of many other museums. Most of them focussed on the ethics of acquisition, based on the 1970 UNESCO convention.

A multiple responsibility

Characteristic for the museum field is - museologically speaking - the dual responsibility of the museum officer. This responsibility concerns on the one hand the cultural and natural heritage that is entrusted to the care of the museum and on the other hand it concerns the community and its development. These conflicting responsibilities make museum work to "the most impossible profession on earth" (Barr in Finley et al. 1986). Opposed loyalties prompted Donald F. Squires to speak of the 'schizophrenia' of the curator (Squires 1969).

However, a bi-partite model seems to be less useful for an analysis of the ethical responsibilities in the museological field. The AIC Code of ethics (1979) mentions six responsibilities of the (art)conservator. The conservator has obligations not only to the historic and artistic works with which he is entrusted, but also to their owners or custodians, to his colleagues and trainees, to his profession, to the public and to posterity. The Statement of ethics; principles of professional responsibility of the American Anthropological Association (1971) mentions also six such responsibilities: towards those studied, the public, the discipline, students, sponsors, and one's own government as well as host governments.

A review of all available codes of ethics in the field of museums and museology provides a list of seven basic responsibilities, i.e. seven entities to which museology as a profession is accountable:

Points (3), (4) and (5) refer to the structure and organisation of the museum profession. As to point (3) Alan D. Ullberg mentions four main topics (Ullberg in Bateson et al. 1981):

All contemporary codes agree on these points. Dealing is taboo and on the other points extreme care should be observed to eliminate potential conflicts of interest. Governing bodies are asked to include these matters in the employment contract conditions. The relationship as meant under point (4) is a difficult one. Museums are more than ever forced to seek and accept financial or other support from commercial or industrial organisations. The increasing dependence on such funding creates serious problems. Existing code of ethics do not yet provide an adequate hold. The only advice the ICOM Code of professional ethics gives is that the museum must ensure that the standards and objectives of the museum are not compromised by such a relationship (art. 2.9). The code is more lengthy on the responsibility mentioned under point (5). This responsibility is dealt with in chapter 8 in this code. Members of the museum profession have an obligation to share their knowledge and experience with their colleagues and with scholars and students in relevant fields.

Primacy of preservation

The responsibilities mentioned under (2) and (6) refer to the content of the museum profession and as such concern afore mentioned dual responsibility. The ICOM Code of professional ethics indicates a clear-cut hierarchy in these responsibilities: 'Subject to the primary duty of the museum to preserve unimpaired for the future the significant material that comprises the museum collections, it is the responsibility of the museum to use the collections for the creation and dissemination of new knowledge, through research, educational work, permanent displays, temporary exhibitions and other special activities' (art. 2.8). This point of view is not unchallenged. To what extent are the costs of preservation ethically justifiable, asks Tomislav Sola, who holds the opinion that a museum is about ideas rather than objects (Sola in Boylan ed. 1992: 104).

All general codes consider the museum's obligation to its collection paramount. It is the primary duty of the museum and the museum professional not only to preserve the natural and cultural heritage that comprises its collections, but also to enhance its quality. This responsibility does not concern the natural and cultural heritage as such. As is stated in the ICOM Ethical acquisition code: 'The museum of today is not a mere repository of objects: it is concerned with the acquisition of the objects as an integral part of a specific programme of (a) scientific research, (b) education, (c) conservation, (d) demonstration of national and international, natural and cultural heritage'. So one of the first obligations of a museum is to draw up a constitution setting out clearly the museum's purposes. In accordance with this constitution a collections policy document should be adopted, including policies concerning collecting, de-accessioning, conservation and documentation.

The responsibility in the field of preservation extends over three levels. Firstly there is a general responsibility to prevent the destruction of historic sites, local ethnic cultures, flora and fauna. Secondly there is a general obligation to take good care of the collections and thirdly there is a specific obligation to respect the integrity of the individual objects as resources. The ICOM code and the several national codes emphasise the first two responsibility, the conservation codes concentrate on the third responsibility. As to this last point, a scientific methodology is advocated with emphasis on the physical integrity of the object. It is considered unethical to modify or conceal the 'true nature' of an object by physical interventions.

Accessibility and integrity

By definition a museum is an institution in the service of the community and of its development. Every museum has an educational responsibility to the public it serves. As such the museum has an ethical obligation to apply its collections and other resources to the advancement of knowledge for the public benefit. As a general rule each museum should strive to make itself and its collections accessible - physically, emotionally, and intellectually - to the widest possible public. However, not every museum need serve every potential audience. But, whatever audience the museum addresses, it should reflect a knowledge of this audience and a sensitivity to the varied capabilities and experiences this audience brings with it. In addition the museum should respect the various ethical and religious beliefs of its public (in its widest sense).

Like the responsibility in the field of preservation, the responsibility in the field of communication extends over two levels: the level of the general responsibility towards the museum's publics, and the level of the specific content of the museum's programmes. As to the last point, the codes of ethics agree in demanding from the museums intellectual honesty and objectivity. Museums should eschew partisan political, economic, and religious ideologies. In particular the presentation of objects should respect their integrity as carriers of information as well as carriers of values.

Whose heritage?

Most codes of ethics are rather vague with respect to the responsibility of the museum professional towards the makers and first users (point 1 above). Apart from a general ban on any action that could encourage illicit trade and the destruction of historic sites, local ethnic cultures, etc. little attention is paid to the cultural consequences of 'scientific' acquisition and exhibition. Karen Warren raises the point that those who have responsibility to preserve cultural heritage could be conceived as stewards of that heritage. Talk of property rights and ownership of that heritage is inappropriate and misguided. 'If this responsibility is grounded in web like considerations of care and contextual appropriateness, then the dominant tradition's rights/rules ethic also is either inappropriate, limited, or seriously inadequate as a framework for capturing all or perhaps even the most important relevant ethical considerations' (Warren in Mauch Messenger ed. 1989: 19).

One wonders whether the limits of professionalism are reached here. To what extent do museum professionals have to take in account the perspective of the maker of an object? This question involves in particular art and ethnography. Most codes of ethics state that it is the responsibility of the museum to respect the wishes and/or interest of the ethnic group(s) to which the objects belong. Consultation from the cultures concerned in the development of such exhibitions is advised.

As to preservation most codes include detailed regulations on collecting policies in which attention is paid to the rights of the owners in general and makers in as far ethnographic collections are concerned. But what to do when the religion of the original maker/owner asks for destruction? In the Maori community of New Zealand some believe that carvings and the like which depict the ancestors should die a 'natural' death (Peters 1983). They feel that just as mortals pass on in time, so do the carvings and artefacts. As to western art the perspective of the artist is also completely ignored. A part of the rights of artists, however, is protected by copyright legislation.

As to the exhibition of artefacts more attention is given to the interests of the original maker/owner. This attention usually concerns cultures or communities other than the culture/community to which the museum belongs. The interests of local artists, for example, are not mentioned. Some artists claim a (moral) right to give their views concerning the presentation of their art. 'Somewhere, a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example to us of what art and its context were meant to be. Somewhere, just as the platinum-iridium meter guarantees the tape measure, a strict measure must exist for the art of this time and this place', says sculptor Donald Judd (Failing 1990). For this reason Judd established his own museum in Marfa, Texas, where he exhibits his work under optimal conditions. Usually art is shown under less optimal conditions - at least from the point of view of the maker. But should the intention of the original maker always be determining?

Museum's purpose and aims

The problem is probably that in all codes of ethics the assessment of significance of the collections is not founded. The only criterion mentioned is the relevance to the museum's purpose and aims. No suggestions, let alone, directions, are given what should be the content of this purpose and aims. Only vague descriptions are given, like 'a museum is an institution in the service of society and of its development' (ICOM code, article 2.6), or 'it is the responsibility of the museum to use the collections for the creation and dissemination of new knowledge' (ICOM code, article 2.8), but these points of departure are little operational. Obviously point (7) of above mentioned list of responsibilities is either too obvious or too difficult to define. Anyway, the present codes of ethics do not provide for justification of the museologists professional existence.



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