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Are Museum Ethics Changing?

September 26, 2011

One of the student assignments in the Museum Studies graduate seminar I lead each fall semester at the University of Memphis is to provide annotated references each week on the seminar topic.  I enjoy the diverse responses from graduate students in Art History, Earth Science, Anthropology, History and other disciplines.  That diversity allows me to think outside of my worldview as the director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  One of my intents with the assignment is build a database of resources to share on the range of Museum Practices issues.  In the coming weeks, I will occasionally feature selections of those resources on this blog, especially as they relate to public engagement of museums and archaeology.

Early in the seminar we take up the issue of Museum Ethics.  Here are some of those resources:

  • Treatment and Repatriation of Human Remains – Katherine Broome wrote about the website set up by family members and first responders of the September 11, 2001 disaster at the World Trade Center.  The group’s function is to galvanize opposition to the placement of human remains in any memorial museum at the site.  The May 2011 issue of Anthropology Today, has an update by the advisors to the group.  Within the U.S., for the last 25 years museum questions about human remains have principally focused on those of Native Americans as a result of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).  Here is a link to an updated scholarly treatment on the impacts of NAGPRA.  Cori Ogleton came across a statement from the Pitt Rivers Museum in the UK about the exhibiting of human remains.  The governing policy of the Museum on the treatment and repatriation of human remains is also available.  A primary difference between the U.S. and U.K. policies is the formal legislation in the U.S. compared to less structured guidelines in the U.K.  As well, the role of the relative or descendent voices of the human remains held in the U.K. seems considerably less in the U.S.  The treatment and repatriation of human remains is a critical issue in public outreach in both archaeology and museums today.  In the U.S., our institutions are now directly accountable to the citizens whose collections they curate.
  • Treatment and Repatriation of Cultural Materials – The Elgin Marbles have long been a touchstone for discussing the repatriation of cultural materials.  That horizon has broadened considerably   Katie Maish found a formal discussion between Malcolm Bell III who notes the loss of context when art is taken from its original setting and James Cuno who promotes the cause of the Universalist Museum approach.  Noteworthy is that only Western Institutions signed the 2002 Declaration of Importance and Value of Universal Museums.  Alex Pearson came across an excellent blog that discusses the generalities and specific instances of looting and museums ethical responsibility.  The repatriation and exhibition of a cultural materials will continue to be a substantive issue that faces archaeologists and museums in their very ability to conduct public outreach.  Does the public’s desire to view prehistoric ceramic vessels override the objections of those descendent voices, also a part of that public, who wish for the objects to be kept from public view?  If the public’s desire to view these objects is considered paramount, why are they for the most part locked away in repositories away from public view?
  • And in General – The American Association of Museums (AAM), the International Council of Museums, the Society for American Archaeology, and most other national organizations make their code of ethics available on-line.  Megan Keener reported an interesting project from the Center for the Future of Museums of the American Association of Museums.  The project invited practitioners from a diversity of museum settings to consider the needs for amending the AAM’s current code of ethics.  The discussion notes that codes need constant updating to address the evolving and dynamic pace of world events.  Here is an example of the project’s discussion.  The Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University also has abundant resources on the subject.

The accountability demanded of archaeologists and museum professionals by the very voices whose materials cultural they curate is rightfully on the rise and will continue to grow.  As well, as archaeologists and museum professionals are employed in nonprofit and publicly financed institutions, in an era of decreasing discretionary dollars, institutions that are unable to explain their relevancy to the public likely will not, and should not, survive.  In this capacity, ethics takes on an increased role.

How has your institution been faced with new ethical considerations?


2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2011 9:12 pm

    I always find the effects of NAGPRA on museum collections fascinating, it seems like there are a lot of bones “on hold” that have yet to be repatriated and yet to be treated or curated properly. Thanks for posting!

  2. holygypsy permalink
    October 23, 2011 6:01 pm

    Hi I am an architecture student and currently working on my thesis project regrading integrating archaeology with architecture. The project is based on a site called Banbhore in Karachi, Pakistan. I am sort of stuck. So just trying new directions. How would you approach or advice for this project. You can look at the images of the site on http://aprojectatbanbhore.wordpress.com. I was actually thinking initially of building over the fort without touching it however. But got some bad reviews for this approach. What do you think?

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