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.

Review: ‘Fighting Extremes: From Ebola to ISIS’

Fighting Extremes

Fighting Extremes: From Ebola to ISIS (iwm.org.uk)

At Imperial War Museum London until 13th November 2016

Fighting Extremes is the Imperial War Museum’s latest exhibition on recent British military engagement. The new exhibit uses images and objects to tell the story of the British military’s efforts, particularly the construction efforts, to help contain the Ebola virus epidemic in Sierra Leone between August 2014 and November 2015 and the combat efforts against ISIS in the Middle East.

Like its predecessor exhibition, War Story, which was supported by the MOD and arms manufacturer, Boeing, “Fighting Extremes” does not examine the context or history of the increased conflict in the Middle East.

What would a genuinely critical exhibit on the British role in fighting Ebola and ISIS say? It would not just praise the work of military personnel. Many were, indeed, courageous, like the British health worker volunteers. A critical exhibit would acknowledge the serious responsibility Britain has for the deaths caused by both the scourges of Ebola and ISIS.

Britain and its coalition partners, lead by the US, helped to create the conditions for ISIS to be formed through their invasion and occupation of Iraq. This has been conceded even by Tony Blair who lead Britain into the invasion. President Obama described ISIS as “a direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion.”

When Syria’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011 developed into a civil war, the US and Britain provided “non-lethal” support, training and financial aid to the anti-Assad forces – and helped neighbouring allies, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to ship weapons to the rebels – amongst whom were extremist jihadis – despite the warnings.

“Western military engagement in Syria is likely to provoke further escalation on all sides, deepening the civil war and strengthening the forces of extremism, sectarianism and criminality gaining strength across the country,” two former NATO Secretary-Generals warned in 2013.

Now, Britain has turned its attack on ISIS in Syria – whilst its allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, continue to support ISIS. The decision by the British Parliament to bomb ISIS targets in Syria has been condemned by many who reference disastrous recent interventions, such as the 2011 bombing of Libya, in which the UK and its allies exploited a UN mandate to protect civilians to attack Gaddafi forces. Libya has descended into civil war and mayhem and a hotbed for extremism and human and weapons trafficking. Some recent news reports suggest Britain will soon turn towards fighting ISIS in Libya.

The Imperial War Museum’s decision to juxtapose ISIS with Ebola is, perhaps, to depict ISIS as a disease that sprang out of nowhere. In truth, neither emerged ex nihilo but there are parallels which emerge from a look at the evidence.

ISIS and Ebola both “take advantage of the weakness and internal conflict of countries” according to UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

Since its December 2013 outbreak, there have been 28,041 recorded Ebola cases and 11,302 deaths in West Africa. Many of those deaths were easily preventable.

The international response was “slow and derisory” according to charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) whose staff were overwhelmed from March 2014 by the virus. It was then that West Africa recognised that a public health crisis was underway but the World Health Organisation (WHO) only made the declaration in early August 2014. By then, some 900 people had died of the virus and many more were dying due to crumbling health systems.

The UK’s Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC) would find in review that the UK response had been “inadequate”. As a major donor to international organisations, particularly, the WHO, the UK could have raised the alarm sooner to mobilise action, they said. The Committee found the UK government failed to release funds quickly enough and paid insufficient attention to NGOs, such as MSF, who were arguing for the necessity of a massive deployment of health workers and resources. Moreover, there was “no scientific justification for the UK Government’s decision to prevent direct flights to the affected region from the UK, which has likely increased the cost of dealing with the outbreak.”  Had the government acted sooner, “both lives and money would have been saved,” according to the report.

Why the inaction and delay? MSF was clear in its publication at the end of August 2014, when there were 1,427 reported victims of Ebola: “the international community community simply doesn’t feel responsible for responding to what is happening in regions that are not perceived as politically or economically interesting.”

The UK deployed 70 Royal engineers to Sierra Leone from August/September 2014 to commence building treatment and training centres. In all 1,500 British military personnel were deployed during an operation that lasted just over a year. The result, according to the government, was 6 UK funded treatment centres and the training of over 4,000 health care workers. “They are a credit to our country, they have saved a nation,” UK Defense Secretary, Michael Fallon said. The MOD was also able to call on hundreds of NHS volunteers in their efforts.

The morality of the UK and other states can be best judged by attitude before Ebola became an international security threat. As MSF identified, member states of the UN had allowed the operational capacity of the WHO to be weakened through reorganisation. The WHO’s haemorrhagic fever unit, for viruses such as Ebola, had been closed.

Between 2010 and 2012, experimental drugs and vaccines to combat the Ebola virus had been tested successfully on animals. However, they sat on the shelf untested on humans because they were not profitable. Only some 1,590 people had been killed by Ebola prior to the 2013/14 outbreak. “Malaria kills as many people each day as this outbreak has killed so far. We must try to keep things in perspective,” Peter Holez, director of the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington said, when the death toll was around 900 in early August 2014.

Clinical trials have been brought forward and results published this year are promising. One vaccine, the rVSV-ZEBOV showed 100% effectiveness in interim trial results. The few samples of experimental drugs/vaccines that existed in 2014 also showed promise when used in emergency situations during the outbreak, mainly benefiting Western aid workers.

The IMF has played a key role in preventing the development of health services in countries such as Sierra Leone. At the start of the Ebola outbreak, that country had 120 doctors and 1 virologist, who was to be an early victim of the epidemic. A 20 year long IMF policy of requiring debtor nations to prioritise debt repayments and building foreign exchange reserves over healthcare spending had, “contributed to under-funded, insufficiently trained and poorly prepared health systems in countries with Ebola outbreaks,” according to a study published in the Lancet.

The UK is a shareholder in the IMF and World Bank and the British Chancellor of the Exchequer and International Development Secretary sit on the ministerial committees of the Washington-based organisations.

Some concession to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the worst hit nations, was made in early 2015 when the IMF cancelled almonst $100 million debt and made new loans of $160 million. The immediate relief was welcomed but longer-term IMF indebtedness of these countries will increase from $410 to $620 million. The West has a responsibility to cancel the debt owed by these devastated states to the IMF which made $9 billion in lending over the last three years.

When the Western states did act, some five months and hundreds of deaths after help was asked for,  it did so along familiar imperial lines. The US, UK and France intervened in their areas of colonial influence: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea respectively. Moreover, they responded to a public health crisis primarily through their military.

“The only positive development to come from the epidemic is that it attracted long needed attention from drug makers,” according to Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Neglected diseases affect some one billion people – a sixth of the world’s population – and threaten many more.

The legacy of Ebola will live long. With Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone having lost many of their health workers, maternal mortality could rise as much as 74% in Sierra Leone and 111% in Liberia, according to the World Bank.

As long as we deny vast swathes of history and evidence regarding the UK’s and other developed nations’ role in the world, we can expect the devastation to continue.