What is an ethical museum?

In early December, I wrote a post considering whether and how museums should respond to the grand jury verdicts in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York. My response was, and remains, that before they can respond to moments of political crisis, museums must create intentionally ethical and self-critical ways of operating. A few weeks after writing that post, I was offered the opportunity to be the founding director of a children’s museum, which provided me with the challenge and opportunity to think about what an ethical museum looks like.

To act ethically is to act in a way consistent with one’s beliefs. Therefore, in order to act ethically, one must have strongly-felt, well-considered beliefs, and reflect these in one’s actions.


In the museum field we do not spend much time thinking about strongly-felt core beliefs. In fact, it is unclear to me whether we share underlying beliefs, or whether these are individual and varied. Again, this question was raised, and quickly dropped, during the responses to Ferguson. A number of museum bloggers signed a joint statement. I posted the statement, but declined to sign it, because of one sentence: ““As mediators of culture,all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.”” In conversations with signers of this document, it was unclear whether this sentence articulated a shared belief, or whether it was simply expedient to sign and post. Similarly, conversations about the differences between learning, participation, engagement, and other ways museums might impact or relate to visitors rarely get the time they merit. We are so busy doing that we do not have time to identify and articulate our ethical true north.

The American Alliance of Museums has a Code of Ethics; this code has three categories: governance, collections, and programs. Museum governance, the Code says, should support the mission and the public good, be responsive to society, treat staff with respect, and uphold professional standards. Collections ethics mandates that collections relate to mission and accord with laws, access is granted, and care, loan, and disposal are regulated. Programmatic ethics dictate once again that the museum support both mission and public trust, that programs are rooted in scholarship and intellectual integrity, and that access and plurality are valued. But what do we mean by “public good”? What does it mean to be responsive or respectful? This set of ethics falls short of truly defining what an ethical museum should look like. If ethics are individual and cultural, rather than field-wide, than this is appropriate, as AAM cannot speak for each individual.

Gretchen Jennings offers more detailed ideas about museum ethics, using the phrase “empathetic museum.” Jennings says that empathetic museums include the following traits: They see themselves as part of a larger community, with related responsibilities to that community. They persistently take this role into account, planning accordingly and responding to audiences in a timely manner. These “audiences” are defined not as traditional museum-going audiences, but as all of the diverse members of the community, and the museum plans for inclusivity in staffing as well as visitorship. (For a full list of the qualities of an empathetic museum, see Jennings’ post on the Incluseum blog.)

Jennings’ definition of empathy is detailed and focused. But it dodges a controversial question at the heart of what she defines as empathy. If a choice has to made between the good of funders and the good of the general public, where do museums stand? AAM’s decision not to speak up regarding the grand jury verdicts was a strategic one; by avoiding taking a stand, they avoided offending the government officials they lobby and the elite who fund museums. To act often puts museums at risk. If it is a choice between funding (which, as I was reminded in a linked-in discussion about this post, keeps the doors open and the lights on), and doing what’s right, what do we choose? What guides us?


There is another way of thinking about ethics that I would like to add here, but I do so with reservations, because it borrows from religion (illustrating, perhaps, how ethics are culturally defined). In Judaism, there is a concept called “tikkun olam,” which means repairing the world. Tikkun olam encapsulates the idea that we are co-creators of the world we live in, and must act accordingly. While tikkun olam originally had mystical, cosmic connotations, these days it is used to refer to social action, and “human responsibility for fixing what is wrong with the world.” (For more on this, see My Jewish Learning.) I feel the need to add tikkun olam to a discussion on ethics because it presents a question to guide ethical decision-making, that goes beyond the idea of “do no harm.” It asks, how can museums help to make the world a better place?

To take on the responsibility of acting ethically, of making a better world rather than maintaining the staus quo, is to take on a heavy burden. A good example of this is the ethical issue of unpaid internships. Michelle Millar Fisher has argued persuasively that internships perpetuate the elitism of museums by keeping out those who cannot afford to work for free. But for many of us, interns provide needed help to staff limited by small budgets. Added to that, people clamor to work for free – we get calls from people who ask to work for free. So do we turn these potential interns away and limit the amount of work we can do, in order to create a more equitable professional community, and change the ways museums think about labor? That would certainly be the ethical choice. But a very difficult one to make.

I am grappling with countless questions like this one. Here are a few:

  • I want to ensure diversity in both staff and visitorship, so that the museum is not an enclave for the privileged but a contribution to the quality of life for all. Do I hire the person with the most experience, or people who will ensure a diverse staff?
  • Working with a small budget, is it ethical to spend money to create an attractive work space, or offer professional development to staff, if this means less funding available for programming? Is it ethical NOT to spend money on creating a comfortable and stimulating environment for staff?
  • Is it ethical to charge additional rates for family workshops? Or does this exclude audiences in a problematic way?
  • Is it ethical to create unpaid internships? Is it ethical to rely on volunteers? What if I simply don’t have the budget to operate in any other way? What would make unpaid internships or volunteerships equitable and ethically appropriate?
  • What can I do to limit waste and plastics, given limited financial resources? How can I host birthday parties without paper plates and plastic cups, or hold art workshops without buying newly created foam and plastic pieces?

Because our field-wide discussion of ethics is so limited, I suspect there are important questions I have not even considered. I’d love to hear thoughts on these and other important ethical considerations. What are your answers to the above questions? What do you think is important in creating a museum that helps to make the world a better place?

8 thoughts on “What is an ethical museum?

  1. There is definitely some food for thought here! This task of pondering and raising such issues is a step closer to an answer or answers you are comfortable with for operating your museum. In my experience, some museums don’t take the time to consider many of these issues using the concerns you raised as excuses. Even if you feel that you have not come up with an adequate stance on each issues, having the questions fresh in your mind will encourage you to consider these things in each decision and discussion moving forward.

    In short, I think these things need to be considered on a case by case basis given the varying profiles, resources, location, content, audience etc. of each museum. The needs of visitors and the welfare of staff need to be suitably balanced within the parameters and resources available which will differ from museum to museum.

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  5. Rebecca, a very interesting post on a very important topic. However, your definition “To act ethically is to act in a way consistent with one’s beliefs,” is flawed and works against achieving an understanding of the common good. You may want to consider the implications of your definition with respect to ISIS and a host of other groups most of us consider to be radicals and terrorists.

    The answer to many of your questions are resolved by a better definition of ethics. I would submit to you that ethics is the study of what is good or bad (right or wrong) with respect to human conduct and to human well-being… AND, to be ethical is to act in a way that reflects the real, authentic and greater good in each and every situation. There is a hierarchy of goods at work in reality. We are acting ethically when we prioritize these goods correctly. We are acting viciously or negligently when we prioritize them poorly. Check your well thought out questions against a hierarchy of goods and the vast majority of dilemmas disappear. Common sense (in the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas and other realists) works that way. When our emotions (passions) lead us to feel something is good that experience (in reality) tells us is bad, then we experience an ethical moment because two goods (feeling good and acting good) are in conflict. That is why Euripides warned us via the character of Medea, “when passion trumps reason, the direst of consequences ensue.”

    A museum can’t make the world a better place if it does not present the hierarchy of goods of the human experience in a way that shows history as it truly is and lifts people up toward higher goods, toward the nobility to which all of us are called.

    Practically speaking, let’s apply this approach to the topic of unpaid internships. Students need these internships to develop on-the-job experiences. What is good for the student is to gain experience for the real world. But the situation varies according to the goods at stake. If an organization can afford to pay at least a minimum wage, then it ought to. If it cannot truly afford to (versus rationalizing reasons), then it ought to find non-monetary ways to assist the student who has done good work for them. The nature and transparency of the exchange determines the extent to which justice has occurred. I for example, believe that most internships should be paid (we pay them in my small company); however, unlike Kant’s categorical imperative, my good cannot be universalized to your particular good (your situation of running a non-profit). That would be, oddly enough, relativism. The hierarchy of goods converges as we climb from our particular situations to universal human conditions that affect the common good (real unity and oneness).

    Thank you for considering my comments.

    • Peter – thank you for this, which is immensely helpful in guiding discussions about ethics. I’m not sure, however, that I agree that checking my questions against a hierarchy of goods helps solve these dilemmas. How do we determine which ethical mandate takes precedence in different situations? For example, some of my questions have to do with the question of serving staff vs serving visitors. By hiring a diverse staff which may have less initial experience and expertise in museum work, investing in training, and making sure they have a good work environment, I can support these individuals. But it is at the cost of programming that would serve visitors, which is the primary goal of the museum.

      If you can share resources to share about hierarchies of good, or other relevant resources or articles on this topic, I would welcome them.

      • Rebecca, the higher good the leader is expected to fulfill is the purpose (mission) for which the organization exists. That means insuring unity (having the critical parts in place especially talent needed to fulfill the mission). Then, the leader pursues the lower good of a diverse staff. Properly understood, it is not diversity itself but talent that meets the minimum threshold that is diverse. this kind of diversity actually strengthens the whole.

        Total unity and total diversity are not real conditions of an organization we consider to be a functioning whole–this is utopian. The leader is expected to see that unity and plurality are necessary conditions that enable contrary oppositions (like lifting weights does for strengthening the muscle). Thus, each (differences in the parts) should exist to the extent that they strengthen the whole, no more, no less.

        So, you must first insure that the needs of visitors are met because your mission exists to serve them. Without a qualified staff (no matter their background) you cannot perform this most fundamental mission. As you strengthen the number of visitors (and thus the financial health of your museum), you can look for ways to increase the plurality (diversity) of your staff so long as they first have the technical competence to function on your team. Given cultural and character differences that exists among people from different groups, it is important to understand the qualities needed for the person (no matter their background) to relate to the needs of the whole–the competent museum team.

        In my experience, most leaders don’t spend enough time recruiting diverse candidates. And, they look for the wrong qualities of experience over intelligence. Intelligence (a minimum level–not geniuses) is the greatest indicator of success in a job for any candidate. Once they pass this threshold, then look for verifiable evidence of integrity, initiative, and interpersonal skills. I often tell clients that after passing the intelligence threshold, empathy (understanding and responding to the needs of others) is usually the best indicator of a fit. Oh, by the way, this quality of a human character is not unique to any particular group. So, if you hire a highly intelligent, highly empathetic diverse individual with good training but no to little museum experience, odds are that person will out perform an experienced average museum employee.

        BTW, most Judeo Christian religious traditions are surprisingly effective at conveying these concepts because they understand the nature of unity and disunity. Religion is not myth. It is philosophy for living life with integrity (wholeness of character) that emphasizes our common destination toward a higher Supreme good (God) over the lower material goods. The deep practical wisdom contained in the Jewish faith exists because all good religion sees faith and reason as essentially compatible. Science after all, was once considered a species of the genus, philosophy. the fracture of science from philosophy has confused our understanding of human nature and nature itself.

        Pax, Peter

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