Money, Market, or Mission? Museums in a Changing World

ethicsGuest blogger Sally Yerkovich is director of the Institute of Museum Ethics, founded at Seton Hall University in 2007.  The Institute promotes accountability, responsibility, and sustainability in museums by:convening conversations about critical ethical issues facing museums today, and creating a physical and virtual community of emerging and practicing museum professionals and museum studies faculty who can use our resources to make informed decisions about ethical matters.  This post is the first in our series of posts from accepted Museums and Politics conference speakers.  Sally will be speaking on “Is there a Future for Museum Ethics?”  and, as you’ll see, there’s much to ponder. We’re particularly interested in hearing perspectives from around the world. Please share your comments!

Since its inception, the Institute has hosted three international conferences and a number of lectures.  It has also generated courses on museum ethics and cultural heritage, initiated dialogues about contemporary ethical issues for museums through its website and listserv, and collaborated with the Center for the Future of Museums of the American Association of Museums on a nationwide forecasting exercise on future ethical issues.

The Institute maintains a LinkedIn group for discussions about museum ethics in the news as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts.  We post news articles on regularly and also maintain a listserv.  The Institute offers confidential consultations regarding ethical issues in museums.

The Institute of Museum Ethics maintains that ethical issues underpin all aspects of work in museums — from governance to education, registration to exhibitions, finances to operations and visitor services.

Whether in day-to-day decision-making or forging an overarching mission, museum ethics are about an institution’s relationship with people — individuals and groups in the communities a museum serves as well as its staff and board members.

We define museum ethics through principles of conduct related to individual and institutional behavior, such as integrity, accountability, loyalty, honesty, and responsibility.  We provide the tools to identify operative ethical principles, and we keep abreast of issues in the field as well as larger societal changes in order to anticipate the emergence of circumstances that might have an impact upon ethical practice in museums. Continue reading

The Museum as Forum – Does It Exist?

1599px-Raphael_School_of_AthensAs I looked at the mission statement for the Museums and Politics project, as well as at a list of the possible topics that might be covered, the phrase “museum as forum” leapt to mind. The whole idea of a project on museums’ links with politics and power seems to me to be predicated on the cluster of ideas that has emerged around the idea of “museum as forum.” Canadian museologist Duncan Cameron’s article, “The Museum, a Temple or the Forum?” launched this concept into the museum world in 1971, and a quick Google search illustrates how seminal this work has been. While Cameron proposed that museums create “the forum,” for experimentation, innovation, and a more open approach to the public, he saw this as a dimension existing alongside museums’ traditional role as temples of learning and culture. Over the years his idea has inspired a vision of the museum that downplays or entirely eliminates the “temple” role, redefining museums (at least in theory) as places of open or shared authority, increased collaboration with audiences, greater responsiveness to their communities, generators of public value, and centers for civic dialogue. See for example the two books edited by Karp, Kreamer, and Levine, Exhibiting Cultures and Museums and Communities. The qualities mentioned above are discussed in the works to which I’ve provided links, as well as in countless other books, conferences, journal articles, and blogs published since the later years of the 20th century. Continue reading

Revealing Queer, Revealing Our Work

Barbie Hull PhotographyHow do museums talk about history that has been socially oppressed for decades?

That was the question that drove me to graduate school. I wanted to know how museums have historically engaged socially oppressed communities within their exhibitions, collections, and educational initiatives so we can better understand how to continue this work into the future. The power dynamics and politicking that are associated with community or socially engaged work in museums, specifically the power dynamics between communities and curators, fear of critique when engaging contemporary politics, and the saddening reality that archives don’t reflect socially oppressed communities, are some of the barriers museums face when working with communities that are not socially accepted.

To better understand how history museums can use exhibitions to write these communities into the archive, Queering the Museum project (QTM) partnered with the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) to explore Queer representation and collecting practices in their institution. Continue reading

What Language are Your Labels?


In my travels, I’ve noticed distinct differences in how museums approach multilingual labels, and of course, the ability to understand and share in a museum’s message is, in itself, a message about politics and power.    In Europe, labels seem to appear primarily in the native language, plus English, the language that most tourists seem to speak to some degree.   There, it seems to be an issue about access for relatively well-heeled travelers (which is also, I assume, why I see labels now in Russian, Japanese and Chinese).

In the United States, there is some effort made for tourists, primarily at larger museums, but increasingly new efforts are made to provide multilingual labels for our community members, not just tourists.  Thanks to Nina Simon of Museum 2.0 and a guest post there by Steve Yalowitz,  I’ve learned about a new study that looked at bilingual labels (Spanish) from a visitor perspective.   As Steve writes,

access to content—the most obvious benefit of bilingual labels—is just the tip of the iceberg. Bilingual interpretation expands the way visitors experience and perceive museums, shifting their emotional connection to the institutions. Continue reading

The View from the United States

duggal_03dec12We recently had the opportunity to speak with Elizabeth Duggal, chairman of ICOM-US about the upcoming conference in St. Petersburg.  Said Elizabeth,  Associate Director for Public Engagement, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and Director, International Museum Professional Education Program at the Smithsonian Institution, “From the American perspective, our goal is to partner with our fellow ICOM committees to facilitate a global dialogue.  This topic, developed by the Russians, resonated with the ICOM-US board when we were invited to participate.”

Continue reading

Should I Go to Russia?

Last week was a strange combination:  the launch of this site and discussions about politics and power;  an American Thanksgiving;  and the distressing turn of Ukraine’s leaders away from Europe back towards Russia generating ongoing, heartening, peaceful yet scary protests in Kyiv and many other Ukrainian cities, followed by violent police crackdowns.

They seem unconnected right?  But in fact, they are connected and those connections are a large part of the personal reasons why I’m going to St. Petersburg next year.  I first went to Ukraine in 2009 as a Fulbright Scholar, technically an official representative of the United States.  But what I discovered, through the active questioning of my graduate students (many of whom I see out in the protests this week) and gradual connections with my museum colleagues (who I also see out and supporting the protests)  that I came as an American, but in many ways, I represented me–a set of values and experiences that are distinctly American but also distinctly my own.  It became clear during those first months, and in many subsequent visits to Ukraine, that those connections, those personal ties we make are what really matters.  So although I disagree deeply with the current Ukrainian government, with the Russian government (and even sometimes with my own government),  I know that my participation is important. Continue reading


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