Commentary on Closing Panel: "A Discussion on Defining Museum Ethics"

Emlyn Koster- President and CEO, Liberty Science Center
Dr. Janet Marstine- Director of the IME, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Art and Music, Seton Hall UniversityRobert McDonald- President Emeritus, Museum of the City of New York
Dr. Judith Stark- Professor, Department of Philosophy, Seton Hall Univeristy
Peter Welsh- Director, Central Division, Arizona Historical Society

Commentary by: Laura Browarny, graduate student in the Seton Hall M.A. in Museum Professions Program; IME travel stipend recipient.
The Defining Museum Ethics conference was brought to a close with a panel discussion among museum professionals and professors.  Seton Hall Professor of Philosophy Judith Stark began the discussion by letting the audience know that she was not there to merely clear everything up as many of her students had asked.  A question that Janet Marstine had asked at the beginning of the conference inquired whether ethics was based on a fixed set of principles, or if they were constantly in flux.  A poll of the audience revealed that their opinions were basically split.  Dr. Stark offered some alternative categories, saying that the principles of ethics are not, in fact, changing, but it is the application of those principles that must change in order to remain up to date with current events and practices. Peter Welsh, Director of the Arizona Historical Society, Central Division, responded to Dr. Stark, I can count on, at some point in the future, being considered a fool, because, as he explained, he recognizes that what he is doing now may become irrelevant as times and museum practices change.

Another theme of the conference that the panel discussed: ought museum professionals be activists?  Robert Macdonald, Director Emeritus of the Museum of the City of New York, pointed out that activism is not usually part of a museum’s mission, and later stated that it might be best in some cases for museums to stand back so as to focus on their responsibilities to the public.  Richard Sandell returned to some of the points that he made in his keynote address, emphasizing that by remaining silent, museums are not remaining neutral and objective; they are actually accepting and reinforcing stereotypes and misconceptions about museum practices.  Although the many voices on these issues may never reach an accord, it is important to keep the dialogue open so that the discourse can expand and evolve to incorporate the new concerns that are occurring every day.

So the question remains: what are museum ethics?  Although a definition may never be universally agreed upon, the panelists were able to compile a list of characteristics that are necessary to museum ethics. First is the devotion to maintaining the public trust.  Lisa Lee asked the question which public? and the response was that museums should cater not only to their members and donors.  The public includes every one-time and repeat visitor, every child of every school group, everyone living in the museum’s community, and every potential future visitor from everywhere in the world.  Second: since there is no definitive guide to museum ethics, it is imperative to keep the discourse open and to pass it along to other museum professionals.  The best way to advocate museum ethics is to talk about it with colleagues. Lastly, ethics is not concrete.  As times change, so will the expectations of and for museums and it is important to remain aware of and open to these changes.


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