Commentary on Dr. Richard Sandell: "On Museum Ethics" Keynote

Keynote Speaker- Dr. Richard Sandell: Head of Museum Studies, University of Leicester
Title: On Museum Ethics
Commentary by: Jennine Schweighardt, graduate student in the M.A. in MuseumProfessions program; Graduate Assistant for the IME

Dr. Richard Sandell, Director and Head of the Department of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, began his keynote address by explaining that museums need to take an activist approach toward issues in museum ethics. To illustrate his position he used, as an example, the work of the project Rethinking Disability Representation, and the nine institutions the program partnered with. The result of this partnership was nine different projects that took an activist approach to assume what is a sensitive topic for many museums and their staff; representing people with disabilities in a socially responsible way. Sandell warned of a backlash against access, inclusion, and the socially responsible museum. He also identified some of the challenges that come with engaging ethical practices in the museum when it comes to representing people with disabilities. At the start of his talk, I found myself wondering how a historian would represent historical figures with disabilities without offending others.

Sandell believes that those who criticize these changes and contribute to the backlash feel these new trends force the museums focus away from its collection to external issues. These critics also believe that governmental demands on museums in the U.K. to reach a quota of diverse visitors is wrong, forcing them to try to bring people into the museum who don’t want to be there. There is also a fear, among this contingency, that the museum will be forced to “dumb down” its content for those who are not already museum visitors. Sandell uses quotes to illustrate these views, and warns that although some of the voices may sound shockingly wrong to us, we cannot ignore them. We must take an active role in debunking these ideas. Without a counter-viewpoint, these dangerous arguments can gain substantial support.

Sandell argues that the criticisms above create false oppositions: inclusion versus core activities, audiences versus collections, scholarly research versus social engagement, and the inspiring versus didactic learning experience. These concepts, in Sandell’s view, can coexist, and need not be seen as competing or threatening each other. Another problem with the critics’ argument is the obvious reliance on seductive language, which includes the use of fear, and dangerous logic. Some examples are; “Art can be difficult, and why shouldn’t it be” (Appleton, 2004), “Museums should stick to what they do best- to preserve, display, study and where possible collect the treasures of civilization and nature. (Cuno, 2003), and “I would suggest that we could begin by clearing away some of the clutter in our museums, the many distractions we have introduced into them- the commercial, the alimentary, the promotional, the entertaining, even- to the extent that it comes between the viewer and the work of art- the educational.” (Cuno, 2003) Sandell takes on each of these quotes and calls to our attention that all have one central thing in common: they assume that there are no barriers to people who do not go to museums, and reinforce the belief that no attendance equals lack of interest by these underserved populations. These quotes also shy away from challenges and seek to allow the museum to exist in a world separate from the public it is meant to serve. Sandell reminds us that museums, as public places of learning, should be spaces where ideas can be challenged through discourse, visual and verbal.

In Sandell’s view, the museum has an ethical and moral responsibility to take on the mindset representing the quotes above. Museums not only reflect social views, but often create them. Museum visitors think for themselves, but also look to the museum as a trusted resource, expecting the truth, and what is socially correct. Museums play too important of a role in the conversation on identity in our society not to take an activist role against the backlash.

Sandell’s project, Rethinking Disability Representation, has several components to it. The project also has a think tank with members of the disabled community. This group serves as a sounding board to ensure that voices of the disabled community are heard, and projects are developed with sensitivity.

The project’s research revealed that curators’ and educators’ largest barrier to doing exhibitions and programs people with disabilities is the fear of “getting it wrong.” They do not want to represent that community in a way that is offensive. Museums need to look to the Disabilities Rights Movement, and the resulting Social Model of Disability. It follows that museums need to represent people with disabilities in their everyday lives, and not focus on disabilities as a medical condition with themes of pity, hardship, and success in overcoming disability in a “cure.” The idea is to show how society disables people, not their medical condition.

Sandell ends his talk by saying how important it is for museums to be activists for the underserved populations and that the loss of incredible insights from people with disabilities would be the price we would continue to pay if we did not attempt to change our direction.

Dr. Sandell’s talk offers several suggestions as to how the museum can foster an ethical relationship with those who have disabilities. I found his arguments against the critics of inclusion effective. His explanation of the social model of disability exposed the true source of limitations to the disabled. It was incredibly helpful to me as an educator, historian, and museum professional to have the social model presented to me, as well as the reminder of how important it is to respect community voices in representation.

It is exciting and encouraging to think of the museum as a place where we as a society can challenge ourselves, as well as a place that is accessible in practice as well as theory. The concepts represented here can be applied to all underserved populations of the museum, and it should be our goal as professionals, to strive for that reality. It is clear from Sandell’s presentation, that it is not enough for institutions to be activists, but that all of us need to be activists for change to occur.

Author’s Note: Quotations in this commentary were taken from the speaker’s conference paper.


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