Q & A : Museum Ethics and the Web 2/1/10

Q: An increasing number of museums are using their websites to demonstrate greater accountability and transparency through such means as identifying works for deaccession, discussing conservation decisions and making strategic plans available. How do you see this trend unfolding?  Which are the models and why?  What is the present and future impact of this development on museum ethics?

A:Steve Lubar
Professor, American Civilization and History, and Director, John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, Brown University:

Whenever I’m confronted with a tricky ethical question – one for which the answer is uncertain, or for which there are good arguments on either side – my answer is always, “transparency.” Make it clear you’re not hiding anything, let the public know what you’re doing, be open and talk to everyone – in general, that will lead you in the right direction. Transparency International is a good name for a group that fights corruption, and The Sunlight Foundation, another anti-corruption group, fights for “transparency in government.” It’s hard to be accused of corruption, or of hiding mistakes, or cutting backroom deals when what you do is open to everyone.

Transparency also helps to involve the public in your work. Museums may be white cubes on the inside, but they are black boxes on the outside. They are mysterious, hard to understand. Readers of the Institute of Museum Ethics website might know how to look inside, but the public doesn’t. What happens to all those objects the museum buys? Who decides what gets put on exhibit? Where does the money I donate go? These can be mysterious even to insiders. It’s hard to support an organization you don’t understand, and easy to be suspicious.

And so some museums have tried to open up the black box and let outsiders peak in. The Web has made this easier than ever, and opened up a vast range of possibilities for museum to share what they have and what they know and what they do.

The simplest way is simply by posting documents online. Some years ago, the Rhode Island Historical Society was going through difficult times. In response to those challenges, the Society undertook an open planning process, resulting in a five-year strategic plan, “written in clear language for anyone to read.” The plan was posted on the Society’s website, not only opening up the Society’s directions to all, but inviting the public and donors to hold the organization to its goals. (http://rihs.org/stratplan.html).

The Web can also make planning more open. Two ongoing examples: The Ohio Historical Society, presently confronting extreme financial challenges, has opened up its planning process to the world using a wiki http://gator968.hostgator.com/~reinvent/ohs/index.php to ask for the public’s help reinventing the society. To date, 98 people have joined the discussion. The Smithsonian Web 2.0 project (http://smithsonian-webstrategy.wikispaces.com/) has been likewise open, not only to the many interests within the Smithsonian, but also to the larger world. The project aimed for a “fast and transparent” process, “openly evaluated, sifted, weighed, and considered by all.” A wiki can provide access to a wider pool of expertise and more points of view, and allows everyone to see what everyone else has to say, without a single gatekeeper.

Openness in planning is important; so is openness in ongoing work. Tax dollars support most museums, either directly or indirectly, and so there is a moral obligation to serve the public; part of that is letting them know what you’re doing. This has the advantage, too, of letting the public – the taxpayers – know what they’re getting for their tax dollars; they can see the work that goes on behind the scenes. It’s a good way to build support.

The most well known example of providing lots of information to the public is the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which has built a “Dashboard” providing a range of information about the operations of the museum (http://dashboard.imamuseum.org/). The Dashboard provides numbers on everything from the number of artworks on loan to the size of the endowment to the number of new plantings by the horticulture department, with links to historical data, and in some cases, the option to drill more deeply: how many visitors from my zip code visited last month? A lot of this is of interest only to museum nerds, but the open display of this information – added to the serious effort to find measures for museum work – provides the public with a sense of what goes on inside the museum. The website welcomes visitor comments on “our progress in serving the IMA’s mission.”

The Indianapolis Museum also posts policy online: its deaccession policy, for example, is a part of a searchable list of deaccessioned artworks (http://www.imamuseum.org/explore/deaccessions). It’s a very nice tool. As the museum claims on its own website: “Yes it’s cool…Yes it’s transparent.” Acknowledging deaccessions at all is a good thing – by making clear that deaccessioning is a common, ongoing, and important part of the work of the museum, this website can remove the stigma that arises when deaccessions are, every so often discovered by the press as a museum scandal. Transparency reduces both the chance for scandal and the chance for suspicion of scandal.

This openness, of course, can raise new questions. Only one object from the hundreds listed was transferred to another non-profit, a set of chairs that found a new home at the Cumberland County Historical Society. Why? And why aren’t we told the real reasons for deaccession: the reasons are reduced to a single phrase, almost always “Secondary example” or “Not mission relevant.”  Presumably there’s a memorandum of deaccession behind each of these decisions: why not post that? Openness can beget a call for even more openness!

Collections, and collections information, are important next steps. Museums have come a very long way from the days where registrars looked with suspicion on anyone who might want to look at their records, and it’s the rare museum now that hasn’t opened at least some of their collections database to the Web. But curators worry that the information might not be perfect; in some museums, the standard for this online data seems as strict as that for scholarly publication. Others publish a note saying that the information is incomplete, and subject to change. Others ask for visitors to contribute their information, either directly to the database, or by contacting the curators. (The Library of Congress’s evaluation of their Flickr Commons site (www.loc.gov/rr/print/flickr_report_final.pdf is worth reading on what might be gained by opening up to the public this way.) But very few publish all the information they have: provenance, storage, and costs, for example, stay closed. That’s traditional, but it’s worth considering whether these stories might not be just as interesting to the public as the curator’s descriptions or scholarly ruminations. The Web makes transparency easy, and we need to rethink whether information traditionally held secret should be made available, now that it can be.

So far, most museums that have made their collections available have done it in fairly closed ways, usually an online database, supplemented by small images. Web openness enthusiasts have pressed for much more. Why not the high-definition images of the artwork? Why not the opportunity to download the database and use it in innovative ways? Why can’t I search and compare and use collections across museums? Many government agencies have put datasets onto data.gov, but not the Smithsonian. Why not?

And why not be more open about the scholarly work of the museum? It’s easy to see ways in which the business side of museums can gain from openness and transparency, and that’s the low-hanging fruit. But what about the curatorial areas, the research and collections and exhibitions work where there’s often a very strict line between public and private?

Exhibitions in museums have traditionally been developed in the same way that scholarly books are: one person, or a small group, writing drafts of labels, making choices of artifacts, talking to a very small circle of experts. A few recent cases have opened this up, inviting the audience to help out. The Smithsonian asked website visitors to “fill the gap” in the American Art Museum’s Luce open storage area:http://www.flickr.com/photos/americanartmuseum/sets/72157613328866883/. The public would search the museum’s catalog and add them, with reasons, to the Flickr page. The goal was to have the public “help us make decisions … encourage dialogue about the collections and reveal some of the inner workings of the museum!” The project was a success – we’re told the chief curator approved the suggestion made by a participant – and it seems an excellent educational tool.

But there’s a downside to openness. Consider the most famous of controversial exhibitions: the Enola Gay exhibition can be read as an example of too much openness; a draft script circulated to a small circle of advisors was leaked to a larger public, and all hell broke loose. Might more vetting, and a more polished draft, have meant a better final result? And consider the curator who spends years working on an exhibition, or a book; should that work be open before its complete, and published, in a form in which the curator is proud, and for which he or she receives credit? Transparency and openness raises new questions about the role of the curator and his or her relationship to the public.

There are, of course, those who prefer the closed system. There are winners and losers to openness. Many art and history museums were traditionally the preserve of an elite. The museum collected their history, bought the art they appreciated, told their story, and was supported (in part) by their ongoing contributions. As museums came to depend on taxpayer support, either through direct appropriation or through the IRS deduction for charitable contributions, it became harder to keep the museum as a closed preserve. And as curators and museum educators strove for both “excellence and equity,” museums began to open to communities in new ways. That opening was a first step toward the more radical transparency we’re beginning to see today. Our philosophy of public education and participation makes that openness increasingly appealing; the Web makes it easier.

A: Alexander Bauer
Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, City University of New York, Queens; Editor-in-Chief, International Journal of Cultural Property:

As a bit of an outsider to the museum world—I am a professor of anthropology in a public liberal arts college—my reaction to the issue of transparency in museums is partial and unquestioningly dependent upon my particular experiences as an academic and museum-goer. As a result, I’m going to use a recent personal experience as a departure point for discussing the issue of transparency in museums.


This past summer, I travelled to Athens for the first time in almost fifteen years. When I was there, I revisited its monuments and museums (that have been extensively renovated) and of course saw the stunning new Acropolis Museum. I also made a visit to the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art, a privately-owned museum which has one of the world’s most spectacular collections of prehistoric sculpture from the Cycladic islands—those famous long, marble figures that have a stylized abstraction often compared to Brancusi and Moore. When I first visited Athens fifteen years ago, the Goulandris Museum stood apart from all other Greek museums for its state-of-the-art installation, lighting, labeling, and other hallmarks of an international-quality institution, and though the intervening years have lessened the distinction between it and the public museums in Athens, it still manages to impress.

In the past fifteen years, I too have changed, and my concern with issues relating to cultural property, the antiquities trade, and the destruction of archaeological sites has given me new lenses through which I view the museum-going experience. I tend to look at labels more carefully—or for different things, anyway—and in this respect my Goulandris visit was noteworthy, if not particularly surprising. As a private collection, it is acknowledged to have been amassed largely through private acquisition. While the Museum’s party line is that its objects should be considered “rescued” from the international art market, several scholars (Ricardo Elia, David Gill and Chris Chippendale, among others) have pointed out the troubling vagueness about where the materials actually came from and the museum’s lack of concern about the connection between private collecting and the looting of archaeological sites.

And this is where things got interesting. In label after label, the sources of the objects were not mentioned. In only one example, in front of a sculpture on loan to the museum from the American School of Classical Studies in Athens—the institute that oversees all American-run excavations in Greece—did the label mention a known findspot (or archaeological provenance) for the object on display. All of the other objects were merely listed as being made of X island’s marble or being an example of Y island’s type. The truth is, of course, that the actual provenance of the vast majority of these objects is not known, and so could not be listed on the label. But where other museums and catalogs will often at least admit this by writing “provenance unknown,” the display labels in the Goulandris Collection didn’t even go that far, instead providing information in a more narrative (but less detailed) style.

There are two problems regarding transparency here, the first of which is not unique to the Museum of Cycladic Art. Most museums with substantial collections of antiquities have obtained a large number of them from the antiquities market—either directly or via donations from collectors—and that market protects the anonymity of its participants so that the “provenance,” or ownership history, of many objects is muddy at best. But protecting the anonymity of collectors also makes it easier for newly looted and smuggled materials to enter the market and effectively become “laundered” through the market’s tradition of anonymity. The tragedy of this is that objects do come from someplace, and that information is immensely valuable for understanding and appreciating them. Such information is being deliberately left behind and ignored because to acknowledge it would be to reveal from where and how each object was obtained.

In addition, a problem often minimized by museums and collectors of ancient art is that the anonymity of the market also allows the passing of fakes as legitimate antiquities. While a few examples are famously suspect, such as the Getty Kouros, it is possible that a large number of ancient objects—sculptures in particular—are forgeries, and some have estimated that as many as 50% of all Cycladic figurines (such as those in the Museum of Cycladic Art) are fake. Aside from the scandal that a lack of authenticity represents, faked objects also serve to change our understanding of the artists and cultures we study through their works. In archaeology, interpretation depends on recovering archaeological context. When, say, 90% of the known examples of a particular type of object have an unknown provenance, then their interpretation is entirely dependent upon the 10% from documented sources. Knowledge is compromised even more when forgeries are added to the mix.

(To illustrate the problem, in the case of Cycladic figurines, the lack of examples from documented sources has resulted in a long-maintained interpretation of them as funerary sculptures, possibly representing the dead individuals in some abstract way. Rather than challenge or even refine this view, newly discovered examples from the art market would simply be worked into and reinforce this narrative. In contrast, recent excavations by Colin Renfrew at Keros reveal that most of them were not placed in cemeteries but may have been ritually broken and then carried around for some time afterwards, possibly related to a pan-Cycladic fertility cult.)

The second issue of transparency raised by the labels in the Museum of Cycladic Art is the lack of even a “provenance unknown” notation. Again, this museum is not the only one to avoid such acknowledgement, but if transparency is to be valued within museums—if not the larger art market—then disclosure of what objects lack archaeological provenance (and thus offer limited or uncertain information) is the very least that is required. While disclosing such information may present some awkwardness, surely it is the only honest way to proceed, as a way of informing the museum-goer that the attributions and interpretations presented are uncertain, or at least open to debate. This was the strategy employed by pariah and now ex-curator of the Ancient Near Eastern Section at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oscar Muscarella, author of The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures. In that museum’s catalog of its “Art of the First Cities” exhibit, Muscarella concluded his entries of the objects without provenance with statements acknowledging that his analysis of the given object was provisional and could not be verified because of the lack of archaeological information. While some might interpret such statements as hyperbolic or aimed at undermining the legitimacy of the museum, I would argue that they are a display of both scholarly ethics and respect for the reader/museum visitor, and I believe that such statements should be encouraged. If making such disclosures also serves to pressure the art market in general to abandon its tradition of secrecy, the benefits would then be compounded.

How do or might the development of museum websites change these practices? With respect to the Museum of Cycladic Art, the web has facilitated the publication of more specific object information. While the entire collection is not available online, the objects that are there do list provenance information, including the ubiquitous “provenance unknown” designation, and so facilitates a degree of disclosure not presented in the galleries. The Metropolitan Museum’s web site is a bit more complex. Like the Museum of Cycladic Art, not all the collection is available online, but the fraction is much smaller (for example, only 51 of the several thousand Greek and Roman objects in the collection are included in the online database). The information made available by the different departments also varies. To their credit, the Greek and Roman and Egyptian departments list detailed provenance information under a distinct heading for each object entry, including both its history of ownership and information about its archaeological findspot (while not available on the web, the Greek and Roman department also has a new “study collection” gallery with detailed information on an additional thousand objects or so accessible via computer consoles in the gallery). The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, may be the standard-bearer in this regard, as its website includes detailed information (including provenance) about almost 350,000 objects in its collection.

While these developments might be a step in the right direction, it is clear that the existence of the web itself doesn’t automatically result in the disclosure of sufficient information. Museums should strive to make their complete collections available online, and provenance information should be available for all objects. The disclosure of what galleries and/or individuals the objects were purchased from—information that the MFA provides along with selected Met departments for their few objects online—is both important as an ethical practice and for the sake of scholarship and the proper understanding of the objects themselves.


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