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Right or wrong – ethics in museums

5 June 2017 by David Fleming

The Mummy Room, ancient Egypt gallery, World Museum, image by Gareth Jones

Ethics is a burning issue in museums at the moment. The need for ethical behaviour – for museums to behave professionally and properly – has always been here, but as public funding shrinks then many museums are seeking to increase their income from a variety of sources, and this is bringing new ethical dilemmas, which can be very difficult to resolve.

In the end, no decision will please everybody, and museum ethics is at risk of largely being reduced to a numbers game – how many people are for or against the public display of human remains (such as in World Museum’s new ancient Egyptian Gallery)?

And, is there an age of human remains that makes it acceptable that they be displayed publicly? How many people are for or against the repatriation of items acquired from British overseas colonies in circumstances that might be perceived today as illegal or immoral? How many people are for or against the selling of museum collections if the proceeds are then invested to the benefit of the museum?

David Fleming, Director of National Museums Liverpool, image by Ant Clausen

Then there is the issue of commercial sponsorship: which companies should museums accept money from, and what is expected in return? Are there companies whose behaviour means that museums should not deal with them, or take money from them? Many people believe it to be wrong that museums should take money from companies that operate in the fossil fuels industry: the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of this depends upon a person’s views about the industry. In which companies is it ethical to invest, and which ones should be avoided? Are there political parties or companies to which NML should not hire out our premises?

And yet, in a democracy that elects governments which are committed to reducing public spending (as has been the case for a number of years in the UK), it is becoming increasingly important that public services like museums are able to find funding in order to keep their services in being, and every pound in income means someone’s job is better protected. Every time an opportunity for earning income is not taken then the quality of the public service is risked.

One thing is for sure, ethical matters are fraught with difficulty, and behaving ethically is never straightforward!

Note: NML has a staff Ethics Committee, the task of which is to advise the Executive Team on ethical matters. In turn the ET advises NML Trustees. I am a member of ETHCOM, ICOM’s Ethics Committee, and a former member (and Chairman) of the UK Museums Association’s Ethics Committee.

Further reading includes –
Sally Yerkovich, A Practical Guide to Museum Ethics, pub. Rowman and Littlefield, 2016
Janet Marstine (editor), The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics, pub. Routledge, 2011
Bernice Murphy (editor), Museums, Ethics and Cultural Heritage, pub. Routledge, 2016.

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