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?