IME Blog

Museum Ethics Q & A: Ethics of Intangible Heritage

Q: What are the ethics of bringing intangible heritage, such as indigenous sand painting practices, into the museum?

A: Peter H. Welsh- Director Arizona Historical Society, Central Division

Intangible heritage, so called, is brimming with ethical questions for museums. The notion itself is a loaded one that simultaneously and paradoxically invokes an opportunity to expand museums’ roles or, on the other hand, to reify museums’ participation in what Clifford and others have termed the “salvage ethnography” of colonial days.

Perhaps it is best to begin with the authorities, and consider Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) as defined by UNESCO. The 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, says that ICH is “living heritage … the mainspring of our cultural diversity and its maintenance a guarantee for continuing creativity” and goes on to define ICH as: “The practices, representations, expressions, as well as the knowledge and skills, that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage” ( This is not the place to aggressively deconstruct these statements, but even a casual reading reveals the use of many terms — from “cultural” to “representations” to “communities” — whose meanings remain elusive and susceptible to innumerable interpretations (and manipulations).

Returning to the question, we could say that intangible heritage has been integral to the idea of museums from the beginning. One could argue (and I would) that intangibility is the driver for all collecting. Even when we bring the most mundane and material of items into a collection we are really bringing the intangible ideas from which they derive their significance. Meanings, uses, and technologies are all intangible heritage that become inscribed in the objects, artifacts, and artworks that fill museum store rooms. And as we know, there is nothing singular nor necessarily fixed about those inscriptions that travel with things. One of the most interesting issues in museums today is how to recognize and represent the multiple —intangible— sorts of significance that are the intellectual and conceptual foundations of our material collections. The diverse purposes that have brought materials into museum collections are as much a part of their intangible semiotic accretions as the purposes that caused the items to be created in the first place.

Moreover, intangible heritage is, by its nature, is impossible to bring into the museum in a lasting way without utilizing tangible media. Whether making a lasting record with written, visual, or auditory (or olfactory or holographic) tools, these then acquire their own existence distinct in time and space from the recorded act or expression. In this way, museums face the risk of once more becoming a repository of nostalgia for how things used to be. On the other hand, we can utilize museum spaces for performance and ephemeral expression. The dry sand painting (whether Buddhist or Navajo) is made and then swept away; the music is sung to silence; the weaver sells the blanket that was woven in the gallery. The presence of these sorts of acts in public museum spaces creates an environment where horizons can be broadened, minds can be changed, and appreciation of difference can be engendered. It also leads to a fundamentally different conception of what museums are about. Positioning museums as sites where people from diverse backgrounds can experience and enact living and changing expression, challenges some of the establishing principles of the institution.

So, each of the alternatives clearly brings ethical issues into focus. Recording the intangible fixes events in time and space, and has the potential to become a measure against which authentic experience is judged — for an example we need only look to the lasting romanticization of Edward Curtis’s photographs of Native American people. Without making a record of intangible heritage, we confront the ethical concerns about museums’ obligation to preserve human activities across deep time— across generations and, when we are feeling particularly self-important, in perpetuity.
Beyond intangibility, there is the idea of “heritage.” We must decide how alert we want to be to the political implications of the idea—or if we would rather assume that heritage is a neutral concept. This is not the place to revisit the “politics of heritage” to any great extent, but we must not ignore the constant tensions that accompany the authorization of continuity from “the way things really were” to now. It is extremely difficult to address heritage without attending to who is asserting the authority to declare what stands for heritage and what does not.

Like politics, ethics can be seen as a constantly negotiated framework for establishing relationships among people. For politics, we know that power is the basic currency, but for ethics it is often harder to sort out exactly what is at stake. The most glaring ethical conflict museums face with regard to intangible heritage is the incongruity between “living heritage” and traditional museum collecting practices. How strong is the obligation to transform an instance of a performance, for example, into a digital record and then preserve the record in standard museological fashion? What is to become of that record in the years and decades to come? Should we care? In a world of limited resources and, consequently, limited choices, should museums become training centers where the most fragile and endangered traditions are passed along to devotees? Or should museums actively stand up for the rights of communities to sustain traditions in situ and exert pressure on states or other governmental entities where these rights are in jeopardy? Should museums devote resources to informing local communities of collections already in the institution that might enable them to preserve their heritage? Museums to some extent do all of these things. The extent to which an institution can implement the broadest spectrum of engagements with intangible heritage, is, in my view, the most ethical position to take.

Martha Morris- Associate Professor and Assistant Director; Museum Studies Department, George Washington University

The display or performance of intangible cultural heritage raises some questions in regard to museum ethics. First of all the realm of intangible cultural property is very broad and includes oral traditions, music, dance, intellectual property, stories, performance art. Although we use the word intangible there are lots of tangible components: e.g. sand paintings or costume or musical instruments. The Japanese recognize certain individuals as “living national treasures” that are the custodians of traditions and folkways. Museums have owned, borrowed and displayed tangible and intangible heritage from the earliest days of their existence. But practices and philosophy regarding these collections have evolved. Museum standards require that they retain authority over legal custody, interpretation, preservation and use of collections. Loans to the museum are also another category where authority is at issue. The AAM states in its guidelines regarding borrowing that the museum must “retain authority over content and presentation” of material. (AAM, 2002) One assumes this ethical tenet applies to all types of material, including intangible cultural property.

However, there is reason to look at this from a different perspective. AAM also addresses the importance of adherence to US laws and international agreements and states “cultural and intellectual property rights of indigenous groups entail a further level of complexity and ethical obligation.” This statement further recommends that “partnerships” with community groups such as Native American tribal governments be formed to work “cooperatively on questions of custody, care, interpretation, and loans of sensitive cultural property.” (AAM 2006) AAM also urges museums to create clear and transparent policies about how these types of materials are to be treated. Therefore a museum’s ethics code in regard to collections should address this concern.

A museum’s treatment of indigenous collections or intangible property needs to be examined in the light of the current laws such as NAGPRA, as well as the museum’s mission, issues of artist’s rights, visitor learning goals, and public relations. The AAMD’s 2006 statement on Sacred Objects recommends that museums engage in consultation and collaboration with native leaders in regard to the handling, display and interpretation of sacred objects. Many museums today are quite sensitive to the special nature of sacred objects and take pains to accommodate tribal leadership’s views regarding storage methods, handling, use in ceremonies, display, and preservation treatment. This applies equally to materials on loan to the museum as well as materials that are in the museum’s permanent collections. Collaboration can take many forms but is most often evidenced through advisory councils, through artists in residence, and through asking the keepers of traditional culture to be actively involved in development of exhibitions and other related education programs such as performances, lectures, and website development.

For museums there are many stakeholder groups that claim a right to their intangible heritage: the Native American, African American, Latino and Asian Americans communities come to mind; but also Holocaust survivors, 9/11 survivors and others who “own” their stories and traditions. It is customary practice today for museums to work with sensitivity in dealing with all of these groups. A good example of a museum that has worked successfully to honor and display indigenous material is the Smithsonian Institution Folklife program. Here the owners of the traditions are the “curators” and “educators” and work hand in hand with museum staff on public presentations. Another important way that museums are dealing with this issue is to provide cultural sensitivity training to staff. At the Smithsonian staff are quite articulate about the fact that artifacts are embodiments of values, feelings, memories. The bottom line is respect.

In answer to the question: intangible cultural property needs to be respected just as tangible artifacts. For questions of preservation, the issue then becomes consideration of appropriate approaches in line with consultation with the community in question. Oral history is a major component of museum holdings and either stands alone or serves to complement and enhance the physical collection. Consider the intangible first person stories of the witnesses to 9/11 or any other major historical event. Consider the music and food traditions of southern Appalachia; consider the work of contemporary performance artists that exist for a short period of time. These are about ideas and beliefs and values. The ethical obligation of the museum is to provide an opportunity for expression, for learning, and for shared experiences centered on these intangibles.


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