Developing a research network to advance 21st-century museum ethics in theory and practice

Background

Museum ethics as a domain of the museum field is a relatively recent phenomenon, emerging in the mid twentieth century alongside the increasing professionalization of the sector. However, the twentieth century approach to ethics as professional practice, which relies on a fixed code of ethics and on the consensus of like-minded individuals to produce these codes and supervise their implementation, has proved to be a constraining rather than an enabling process. What is needed is a new approach to ethics in the twenty-first century, where the museum sector is not passively reacting to ethical issues but is actively thinking about the challenges and consequences of museum practice in a changing world. The new model of museum ethics, which has emerged in the last five years, reconceptualises museum ethics as a discourse contingent upon changing social, political, technological and economic factors. Through debate amongst multiple, diverse and multidisciplinary stakeholders, ethical issues are identified, considered and acted upon. Looking at ethical issues through the lens of contingency will help us to understand the complexities of the relationship between museums and applied ethics.

Aims and objectives

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) under the 'Care for the Future' initiative, RCMG brought together a research network to explore how this emerging theory of museum ethics can be translated effectively into practice. With partners the Museums Association (MA) and the Inter-Disciplinary Ethics Applied Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (IDEA CETL) at the University of Leeds, and contributors who were international leaders in contemporary ethics discourse, the network created novel cross-disciplinary connections in order to map the ethical terrain essential to the twenty-first museum.

Five workshops took place from 2011-2013 in which project partners joined with a network of international museum leaders, practitioners and academics in ethics discourse, focusing on five distinct but overlapping themes across an array of museums:

  • Social engagement
  • Radical transparency
  • Shared guardianship of collections
  • Moving beyond canonicity
  • Sustainability

Participants shared an understanding of the contingent nature of museum ethics--its responsiveness to economic, social, political and technological forces--and a desire to translate theory into practice.

Key findings

The research network expressed a compelling need for change in museums through the framework of new museum ethics. Participants were receptive to the premise of the network that new methods and new ways of thinking are required to equip museums to develop responsive ethical policies, procedures and decision-making now and the future. Whilst many questions persist about the practical implications of the new museum ethics that will require further research, responses from contributors reveal the significance to leaders in the sector of the five ethics themes on which the network focused, social engagement; transparency; shared guardianship of collections; moving beyond canonicity; and sustainability. Throughout the process, participants used these five themes to raise ethics issues that struck deep at the core of what museums are for and who they are for.