Friday, January 22, 2016

Book Review - Ethics Guidelines

You're probably wondering how on earth I'm going to critique our national code of ethics for museums, and rightly so. Well, the new Museum Evaluation Program addresses ethics head-on; we're looking for museum boards to adopt these guidelines or use them as the foundation of their own. So full disclosure, my intention is not to critique our code of ethics. My intention is to promote it, and to highlight some areas that have been or are still issues for some museums.

As anyone who has attended one of the workshops I teach can attest, I pull out my little purple book regularly. It is foundational in our work, and yet we hear all too often that new museum staff or board members or volunteers are completely unaware of these ethical guidelines. Let's focus on that last word - guidelines. These aren't punitive constraints that inhibit our work. They are simple, effective rules that inform decision-making. They provide transparency on your activities, and show your community that you follow national museological standards, educating them about these standards in the process.
Now let's get down to the highlights.

Governance - Your board members must understand their responsibilities. Period. These include obtaining financial resources to keep the museum running smoothly (note that I used the word obtain, as in the board members have to do it rather than calling out 1-2-3-not-it and pointing at someone else). There is also a reminder that the museum director is the only staff member who is directly answerable to the board, ie the board doesn't get to run around 'supervising' summer students or other staff members. That's the director's job. As someone who has been on the receiving end of this more than once, you've got to set up a clear organizational chart and stick to it.

Accessibility & Presentations - Museums need to pay special attention to being culturally respectful, presenting various viewpoints and traditions in an impartial manner. If part of an exhibit or talk is about the bias that existed around a certain subject, being open and upfront about that bias is a must. An example of this was in the news recently when a very well known museum in Europe decided to rename artistic works in its collection that made the current Curator uncomfortable. Sharing past perspectives, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable they make us feel today, is part of our job. Ignoring the fact that insulting slurs have been directed at various cultural groups is ignoring our role as educational and socially responsible institutions.

Employer/Employee Relations - There is a lot of chatter right now about the insanely high expectations of museum workers versus the long hours and low wages, and how some of our best and brightest people are burning out. While the ethics guidelines aren't that blunt, they do contain some pretty set standards:
- workers must be courteous, efficient and helpful when dealing with the public
- workers must be respectful, cooperative and supportive of their colleagues, and senior workers must share knowledge and skills with co-workers
- workers must adhere to institutional policies, use the museum's name & resources for official business only, be conscientious of their duties, stay current with museological trends and work to improve their skills.
As employers, museums must have policies in place to ensure:
- equal opportunity in job postings, recruitment and promotions
- job descriptions are regularly reviewed, and workers are given proper support
- potential conflicts of interest are avoided or addressed appropriately
- workers are never asked to conduct illegal or unethical tasks
- workers are able to suggest changes to policies and procedures
- that the museum has contingency plans in place in the event of labour disputes

The other key guideline in this section has to do with professional development. As I like to say, we are educational institutions, and that includes internal education. We have to be actively increasing our knowledge and improving our methods through professional development and networking opportunities - workshops, conferences, regional meetings...these are crucial to a museum's success.

Now for the long list of collection-related issues:

Acquisitions - I've ranted about this before, during site visits, while teaching workshops, and in this blog. For a number of reasons, museums don't like to say no to donations. There also seems to be an increasing number of museums that want to accept donations for sale or trading purposes. These practices are all unethical. The guidelines state that "acquisitions for museums should be made with a view to permanency, and not for the purpose of eventual disposal." That means we can't be taking stuff that we think will fetch a high price at auction. If someone offers to give you something to use for fundraising, such as an artist donating a painting for you to sell, that is entirely different. That is not an acquisition nor does it have anything to do with the collection.
The ethics guidelines also strongly warn museums to avoid the following scenarios:
- collecting outside of your mandate
- collecting items that you can't store properly, exhibit, catalogue or conserve within a reasonable period of time
- collecting items with conditions attached
- collecting items for the purpose of trading
- collecting items that fall under the mandate of another museum

Loans - I'm sure my long-time readers will remember this post about permanent loans. As a follow-up to that, we also developed a documentation package on Reconciling Old Loans to help museums address this issue. Yes it takes a lot of time and effort to work through, but it is extremely risky, unethical, and an oxymoron to have "permanent loans" kicking around the museum.

Deaccessioning & Disposals - A few quick points here include the fact that it is okay to remove objects from the collection, that your goal should always be to keep things in the public domain, and that you must carefully document the process. One of the other key pieces comes up time and again though, so I'm just going to let the guidelines speak for themselves on it. "Museums may not dispose of collections by returning them to the original donors as a gift, (whether or not the donor receivd any tax benefit at the time of the donation); however, museums may allow the original donor to purchase the material at current fair market value. As a courtesy, museums should allow living artists the first right of refusal to re-acquire their earlier works." Notice that it didn't say the heirs could lay claim to an object or purchase it at a token price.
If the museum ends up selling deaccessioned items, the money must be used for collections-related purposes.

Let's stop there for now and go back to the beginning. Remember that I said my intention was to highlight some areas where I see issues. This is not an exhaustive, in-depth look at our entire code of ethics. It's really important that everyone in your museum knows these guidelines. If you don't have the little purple book, or the black & white pdf version already, you can download it here.

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