The Falsity of Museum Neutrality

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Code of Ethics launch by the Museum Association, 2016 (Museums + Heritage Advisor)

In a recent speech, Dr David Fleming, President of the Museum Association, discussed the ethics of museum funding and partnering. He recognised the ethical responsibility of museums in making such decisions – and decried the falsity of the claim that museums are neutral.

“I have to say, I often despair at the frequency with which museum professionals state that we are somehow ‘above’ politics and we occupy a Neverland where we all deal in an absolute truth. This is either naiveté of the first order or it is far more sinister than that.”

Dr Fleming gave two examples of decisions made by his own institution, the National Museums Liverpool (NML) where he is director. It was important, he said, for staff to “stifle any personal view” – though, he recognised that they will unavoidably play some part.

A political party with “a whiff of racism” successfully hired a conference space from NML. Dr Fleming argued that, as the political party did not reject democracy and the deal could be done on a purely business footing, with no association with NML – it should not be spurned.

On the other hand, the hiring of an exhibition from another museum that was funded and named after a company involved with a military railway in a conflict zone was aborted. NML found “an appropriate route that did not compromise our reputation”.

In both decisions, Dr Fleming admits that, however much he and his colleagues tried, personal views necessarily affected the outcomes. “Pretending to be neutral is unethical; pretending that the museum has no bias and contains nothing other than scholarly expositions is unethical.”

The Museum Association’s Code of Ethics for Museums rejects the idea that museums should be neutral. If personal views of staff should be “stifled” the institutional code of ethics should be positively upheld. The Code of Ethics requires museums to support issues such as free speech, non-discrimination, public engagement, public benefit, accuracy and, in relation to funding and partnering, editorial integrity.

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For a museum to resist influence and promote “editorial integrity” it must have positive institutional ethical values and must certainly not be neutral. Without editorial or intellectual independence, it fails its public service duty. Specifically, it can no longer “(e)nsure that everyone has the opportunity for meaningful participation in the work of the museum.” (Code of Ethics for Museums, 1.7). Nor can it fulfil its duty of providing and generating accurate information (Code of Ethics for Museums, 1.4).

Not only must museums have Ethics Committees advising their decision-makers, as the NML has, but, also, a clear statement of ethical values. Most museums endorse the Museum Association’s Code of Ethics but, I believe that more institution specific statements are required, addressing ethical issues in their subject matter.

Moreover, rather than estimating public perception and just worrying about their reputation – museums should directly involve the public in their decisions.

This way, ethical decisions of funding and partnering are not mainly decided in a murky mixture of personal staff views (and it’s not the cleaning or security staff’s views that usually creep into the decisions) and estimates about the public reaction – but, also, a clear and considered internal ethical assessment.

If the Science Museum accepts oil company, BP, as a sponsor can it remain editorially independent and uphold its ethical views? Or, what about when the Imperial War Museum accepts donations from the Ministry of Defence and arms manufacturers? Perhaps, it is possible, but we certainly cannot know unless we know what their ethical views are and how they make each particular decision.

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