The Ethics Reader | March 24, 2023

What a month for museum ethics it has been! The Met has been the focus of several news articles after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published an article linking more than 1,000 antiquities in the Met’s collection to traffickers. The ICIJ has been focused on collecting practices at the Met (and several other museums) for close to two years, following the revelations of the Pandora Papers. Earlier pieces examined the links between the deceased, indicted art trafficker Douglas Latchford and US Museums, including the Denver Art Museum (who, earlier this month announced they were removing the name of Latchford’s associate – and former DAM Board member – Emma Bunker from its Arts of Asia gallery, and returning financial gifts received from the Bunker family in support of its capital campaign).

One quote in the ICIJ investigation into the Met’s practices that caught my attention detailed some concerning historical context:

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in 1880, long after its counterparts in Paris and London. The museum started out with a purchase of 174 paintings, placing it far from the scale of France’s palatial Louvre’s galleries already holding thousands of works, many inherited from the nation’s colonial exploits.

Even in the 1960s, the largest museum in North America was still playing catch-up. The Met’s leadership aggressively sought major acquisitions and took a casual approach to, and even at times embraced, antiquities smuggling as a mainstay of the museum’s sourcing.

Under its then director, Thomas Hoving, the Met embarked on a buying spree in an effort to build out an antiquities collection that could match rivals in London and Paris. Over the following decades, the institution filled its halls and warehouses with treasures from Greece, Italy, Egypt, India, Cambodia and beyond. “Not a single decade of any civilization that took root on earth is not represented by some worthy piece,” Hoving later wrote of the results of work he had begun. “The Met has it all.”

Woodman, Spencer, Malia Politzer, Delphine Reuter, and Namrata Sharma. “‘The Stuff Was Illegally Dug up’: New York’s Met Museum Sees Reputation Erode over Collection Practices.” The Guardian, March 20, 2023, sec. Culture.

The quote almost perfectly rhymes with this fascinating interview from July 2022 with Matthew Bogdanos, the head of the New York Antiquities Theft Task Force:

And there’s an emerging market that is, of all the trends, the most troubling: the Gulf states. Objects, mosaics, extraordinary reliefs that used to come the normal route—either to London or to New York—out of the Middle East, out of Iraq and Syria and Turkey and Lebanon and Egypt, are now stopping and disappearing in the UAE and Dubai, Qatar and Kuwait. And that is disturbing. 

When people said, “Oh, wow, it’s so great, the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It’s so amazing that they’re bringing culture to the people.” And my first thought was, no, that’s just another market. You know how the Getty was first founded? In the ‘60s, they had to acquire quickly to catch up because everyone else—well, they wanted to be a major world player. But all these major world museums had been in business hundreds of years. So in order to catch up—I mean, it’s well documented—they had to cut a lot of corners, right? Well, I don’t know why people think the Louvre Abu Dhabi would be any different. They’ve got to catch up. 

There’s only one way to catch up.

Petersen, Anne Helen. “Inside the Mind-Boggling World of the Antiquities Theft Task Force.” Substack newsletter. Culture Study (blog), July 17, 2022.

It’s a troubling take… Meanwhile, reframing the impact of illicit trade of cultural property, Sophiline Cheam-Shapiro has written about their experience of being asked to leave the Met when dancing a prayer to Cambodian antiquities within the galleries. Cheam-Shapiro writes:

Whenever I visit museums around the world that house Khmer antiquities, I pray to the gods and ancestors that inhabit them. Sometimes I simply put my hands together and chant. Other times I move. This is my tradition. It is an essential part of my identity and my relationship to these objects.

…About two minutes into my brief dance, a member of the museum’s security team approached me and stated that I wasn’t allowed to dance there without permission. He also instructed me to put on my shoes. Now, I knew that the museum would be unhappy if it understood what I was praying for. But in that trancelike state, I was unprepared to be interrupted. In fact, in my over 40 years of dancing, no one has ever told me to stop.

Cheam-Shapiro, Sophiline. “Met Museum Kicked Me Out for Praying to My Ancestral Gods.” Hyperallergic, March 21, 2023.

Cheam-Shapiro’s piece reminded me of this recent incident at the Portland Art Museum, in which an Indigenous woman was asked to remove her traditional woven baby carrier while visiting an exhibition of Native American art, since it violated the museum’s “no backpacks” policy, showing the continued tension between museum policies and the needs of different publics to be treated with dignity and respect when accessing cultural collections The museum has since said that it will change its visitor policies regarding baby carriers.

Finally, an update on a couple of pieces that I linked to last monthLisa Korneichuk’s great piece addressing “misnomer geography” asked why US museums continue to label Ukrainian artists as “Russian”…  An answer of sorts came last week in a NYTimes piece, which described how museums have started to relabel works in their collections to better reflect their Ukrainian roots. And ProPublica continues to publish important pieces addressing the repatriation of Native American remains under NAGPRA, like this one, which looks at the commitments that dozens of museums and universities have made since the series started. For better or worse, it seems that the work of investigative journalists has perhaps become an essential part of museum accountability…

Thanks for joining me for this month’s Ethics Reader. Have you noticed other ethical conversations around the sector this month? I’d love to hear what you’ve been thinking about.

Introducing The Ethics Reader

Well, it’s been a while… my last post was written pre-pandemic, which feels immeasurably long ago. The museum sector has experienced some landmark shifts in that time, including related to repatriation and ethical returns practices, labor equity and unionization, digital practice, and much more. Rather than looking back to where we have been, however, this post marks what is hopefully the first of a set focussed on collecting and contextualizing links and conversations in the field related to questions of ethical practice in museums. Since 2019, I’ve been teaching a course on Museum Ethics and Values, which seeks to understand the practical, political and institutional paradoxes that museums face in trying to work in the service of the public. This course is contemporary in its focus, and seeks to examine emergent ethical dilemmas within the field, many of which are located in news articles, blog posts, and reports from the sector.

Since I am no longer relying on Twitter for all my bookmarking needs, I thought I’d return to blogging to capture links and impressions related to ethical practice in museums. In The Ethics Reader series, I plan to share links to pieces that have captured my attention recently in case they are of interest to you, too. I’d also love to hear what you’re reading and thinking about and I invite you to share your own links and thoughts in the comments.

The Ethics Reader | February 27, 2023

In case you haven’t seen it, repatriation is the focus of a major new investigation from ProPublica, focussed on “The Delayed Return of Native Remains”. The Repatriation Project includes a database of “institutions holding Native American remains and tribes seeking to reclaim them”, a guide for “reporting on institutions that still hold Native American remains“, and an FAQs section addressing the hows and whys of the project. ProPublica’s decision to ask whether the promise of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) had been fulfilled is particularly important, given the recent proposal from the Department of the Interior to revise regulations to improve implementation of NAGPRA. Pair your dive into the subject with this piece from Maya Pontone at Hyperallergic, on the ways that the use of pesticides and preservatives in museums can complicate repatriation work.

Reframing the question of repatriation in the travel section of the New York Times, Charly Wilder draws attention to the increasing recognition that many of the most well-known objects within museums were stolen. Wilder asks us to consider, “what responsibility do we bear as spectators for patronizing institutions that display what critics say are stolen works?” And, as evidence of Russian looting of art from Ukraine’s museums mounts, it is clear that this question is not only relevant in thinking about the objects acquired decades ago, but those entering the markets for cultural property now… Keeping focus on Ukraine as the war passes the one-year mark, Hyperallergic has a great, interesting piece by Lisa Korneichuk addressing “misnomer geography”, which asks why US museums continue to label Ukrainian artists as “Russian”. Korneichuk writes:

Ignoring this issue not only prolongs the status quo but makes it easier for Russia to steal and appropriate more. As I pass by Ekster’s work at the Art Institute, I get a push notification on my phone saying that Russian soldiers looted art museums in the Kherson region. All these stolen heritage properties will end up on display in Russian state galleries and museums, and the looted artists will likely be identified as “Southern Russians.”

…When imperial powers destroy a museum or steal its collection, they strip the opponent side of its material culture and, therefore, of any hard evidence for the legitimacy of its existence. By targeting Ukrainian cultural heritage, Russia obliterates the material representation of Ukrainian identity. And by stealing heritage and appropriating names, Russia denies the oppressed nations any right to independence and self-identification. 

Finally, I wanted to share a piece by Danté Stewart about the role and importance of Black museums that I’ve been sitting with for the last week or so. Although the whole piece is great, this paragraph stands out:

A just country is a grieving country. A country that acknowledges and grapples with its grief, whose people are committed to making the most marginalized visible, to resurrecting the stories that have been buried, is one that has learned to reckon with its sins.

Stewart, Danté. “Opinion | My Kids Need to Know That Black Is Brilliance. So We Go to Museums.” Washington Post, February 12, 2023.

As museums grapple with their own histories, perhaps it is helpful to consider whether a just museum is a grieving museum, acknowledging and grappling with its grief and learning to reckon with its sins…

I’d love to hear from you. What are the ethical dilemmas facing museums that you’re thinking about these days?

Reflections on teaching museum digital practice in 2019

When I was early in my teaching career at GWU, I had a conversation with Cait Reizman  about her belief that students need to be able to leave a museum studies program with something tangible that they could share with future employers. The comment stayed with me, and since that time I’ve thought about how best to realise that aim. I initially asked students to blog, since public writing had been so beneficial to my own career. But recently, I’ve become less comfortable with requiring students take on the risk of public writing without the benefit of prior review. This fall, I tackled the problem differently.

Inspired by the Humanizing the Digital: Unproceedings from the MCN 2018 Conference book project, which my co-editors and I produced in less than four months after the MCN conference last year, my students in Museums and Digital Technology took on an ambitious project. Together, we created a digital publication about the state of digital practice in museums in 2019. Each student was responsible for creating one 3,500-4,000-word piece of writing that dives deeply into a specific research area related to the overall topic of museums and digital technology. Student projects could synthesize current readings and practice around a broad area, or dive deeper into a single technology or case study related to the theme of digital practice and its impact on the museum. Students would then work with a small group of peer reviewers to develop their ideas and writing alongside regular feedback from me. The finished publication is built on Quire, the open source multiformat publishing platform created by the Getty. Each student was responsible for defining and researching their topic and writing their paper, then I, working closely with Greg Albers, Digital Publication Manager at the Getty, was responsible for compiling the final book.

The intent was that that students would gain a broad overview into the issues related to technology in museums today via weekly lectures and discussions; a deep engagement with a topic of personal or professional interest through a research project; experience in a collaborative creative environment through the peer review process; and practical skills in Markdown language. At the end of the semester, each student would have a published piece to share with peers, colleagues and friends. From my perspective, this has been a hugely successful approach to teaching on museum digital practice. As the semester matured, I found students bringing their own research into class discussions with depth and maturity. Additionally, multiple students reached out to museum professionals from around the sector to find out more about specific projects they were working on, growing their insights beyond those that I could provide and enabling professional networking.

I am so proud of what my students have produced in what was ultimately a ten-week period from initial proposal through to publication. Their essays are thoughtful and interesting, with varied topics such as empathy and technology in Holocaust museums, shifting paradigms in visitor participation (which focusses on user-generated content), social media and crisis communications, social media collecting practices in museums, collections management policies and procedures for Time-Based Media and many more.  The flexibility of Quire’s format enabled experimentation in writing style, form and content. Students embedded gifs, Sketchfab mockups and JSON files in their papers. Some essays were personal and others took a more formal tone. 

Of course, there are some challenges with a project like this. Since this project was an experiment in the works, we were figuring out some of it as we went, so there are some inconsistencies with formatting and style. This is exacerbated by the short turnaround time from when students handed in their completed essays to our final publishing date. The tight turnarounds were also challenging for students who get sick or need to miss a deadline for some other external reason. There is, for instance, one essay still to be added to the book, which will now happen after launch. Beyond this, there are naturally gaps in my knowledge in certain areas, so there may be areas of critique that I missed or could better have supported. One possible area for future development of this approach is to seek volunteer peer-reviewers from around the sector who might be able to work with students on their essays, although that introduces other kinds of contingencies to take into account.

This was the most ambitious project I’ve taken on as a professor, and it took significantly more investment than other kinds of teaching, because I needed to be supervisor and editor to each student, as well as running weekly classes. I also needed to learn how to use Quire and become somewhat familiar with Github. But I think the results have been absolutely worth it. My long-term hope is to repeat this project each time I teach this course moving forward, so that we build up an archive of public student research over time, which can act as a marker about their ongoing and specific concerns and interest in the sector.

Thank you to Greg Albers for his generous work helping us bring this publication to life, and to each of my students for diving in wholeheartedly. If you are interested in reading the syllabus for this course in more detail or finding out about this project, get in contact with me and I’ll send it your way.

Because they are hard… Reflections on #MCN2019

Last week, around 500 museum digital practitioners were thrown together in a resort in San Diego for MCN 2019. This was my eighth MCN, and it was the first one since I first attended in 2011 that I had absolutely no hand in shaping. When I first went to MCN, I was both a scholarship recipient and a member of the program committee. By 2015, I was a program co-chair. In 2016, I added to my co-chair responsibilities and joined the board and the executive committee, before becoming MCN President at the end of the following year. It is no exaggeration to say that I have been intimately involved with the conference and MCN more broadly as long as I have been in the museum tech community, so it was with great joy that I was able to attend the conference as an attendee rather than a creator. I had a lovely time, and wanted to share some reflections of that experience. It’s a while since I’ve fired off the ol’ blog for some post-conference discussion, so forgive me if I’m a little rusty.

Following along from a distance via the Twitter conversations, Seb Chan commented in his newsletter (which you should subscribe to) that the conference seemed exhausting, “like a ‘Museum Support Network’ for workers struggling to keep their heads above water.” Rachel Ropiek has also noted that in written years, the “conference tone also shifted — especially in the last two years — away from all that joy toward a desperation-tinged need to support each other through difficult times.” Dana Allen-Griel put it this way…

Part of this shifting experience of the conference might be because, as Jeremy suggested, MCN seems to be torn between its identities as a tech conference (look! shiny new thing!) and “a social justice oriented conference that primarily examines museums through the lens of tech.” I think he’s giving voice to a really interesting tension. But it’s a tension that, for the first time in a while, I found hugely productive.

For me, MCN2019 was filled with people interrogating, reframing and reexamining their work and the practices of their peers within the sector in light of changing understanding about the technological, political and cultural environment. There were more questions raised than solutions offered, which might have been uncomfortable for some. However, I left MCN more optimistic than I was when I arrived, because it felt like the scale and complexity of the challenges we’re facing, as individuals and institutions, as a country and even globally, were being taken seriously, without slipping to the glib, superficial or easy response. The deep, ongoing engagement with difficult conversations, whether about machine learningwhite supremacy culture and its manifestations, the toxic hell-hole that social media has become and what that means for our communities and our staff, or about data governance, ethics and privacy, suggests that our sector is taking seriously both the daily concerns of the job and our long-term, collective responsibilities to our many communities and publics. As Nik Honeysett reminded us, “We do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Because they are hard.

Engaging with these kinds of conversations and speaking out comes at a cost (particularly for people of colour and other marginalised people who bear the burden of driving so much change in our institutions). But multiple times, I witnessed people who were clearly grappling with challenging topics speak about them. For instance, I was hugely moved in Kate Haley Goldman‘s session on How Human-Centered Design Fails Museums, in which she argued that the processes that HCD uses are fundamentally reductionist and othering, minimising the complexity of users in ways that are deeply concerning. She asked us to consider, “What are the unintended downstream effects of our work? How and where are we retraumatising people?” Kate was clearly grappling both with her own understanding of complex problems and what it might mean to question the strategies and approaches that the sector has adopted. But she was speaking out even when it was uncomfortable. And I think that, for me, was part of the point. The conversations about our complicity in algorithmic discrimination and surveillance capitalism and what we might do about it felt like an enormous leap from conversations I had only a few years ago.

Of course, it’s not just the conference that has evolved. I have changed over those years, too (haven’t we all?! America often feels like a year passes in each week). That’s one reason why Seema’s love letter to her conference friends, in which she spoke about the importance of “normalizing real emotions”, resonated with me. This year in the classroom, I have regularly tried to show my emotions to demonstrate to my students that, like them, I am a whole person for whom teaching is merely one aspect of my job (also recognising that discomfort with emotions or feelings is a characteristic of white supremacy culture). Similarly, at MCN this year, I ended up crying or on the verge of tears at least four or five times. Being emotionally open and experiencing those emotions even when it meant crying in a hallway rather than trying to keep it all together might have contributed to the way I felt in leaving San Diego.

As MCN wrapped up, Aaron Cope forward me a link to a Tweet from Deb Chachra, in which she wrote about how she was recently asked, “how I stay optimistic when I am spending my days thinking about infrastructure (and thus climate change, resilience, social justice , etc.).”

And maybe that’s what it felt like, like we were all working as if we lived in the early days of a better nation (and a better museum sector) or a distributed, slow-motion apocalypse.

A huge thank you and congratulations to everyone who worked so hard to put this conference together – particularly Andrea, Andrea and Eric.

VOX POPS: Crowdsourcing Museum Definition perspectives for Museopunks

As you probably know, the International Council of Museums recently proposed a new definition for museums. Although the vote on the definition was postponed, the conversations that it sparked have been valuable and provocative. On the next episode of Museopunks, we wanted to try to unpack more nuance and perspectives than we can do with any single interview, so we’re crowdsourcing some responses to the following prompts or questions.

  • Do we need a new international definition of museums?
  • How might a new definition affect the sector and/or your work within it?
  • Is this discussion important within your national setting?
  • Has the conversation changed anything for you, or is this discussion a distraction?
  • Was this the right definition?
  • What is a museum? What is your vision for museums?
  • What else should we be thinking about in this conversation?

If you want to contribute, please send me a short (1min-5min) audio recording of your perspectives. In your recording, please identify yourself as you’d like to be represented on the show, as well as noting your country and if you’re an ICOM member.

We’re doing this as a bit of a sprint, so it would be amazing if you could send me your reply by Sunday this week (October 6).

We’ll be selecting a number of responses to go on the episode, but may also release an additional track online featuring other responses if we receive too many to feature on the show. We’d love to hear from people in different parts of the world too, so if you’re somewhere that we don’t always feature via our guests, get in touch!

Teaching a new course on museum ethics

This semester, I’m teaching a new course on Museum Ethics and Values. Early in the development of this course, I reached out via Twitter for thoughts about the kind of topics the course should address. These discussions have informed the final approach, so I wanted to share and revisit them. (I didn’t include every response, but here is a sense of the range and scope…)

Museum Neutrality & Systems of Oppression


All about that money (and governance)

Employment & Wage Equity

How to act work with and through ethical dilemmas (institutionally or personally)

Other interesting questions

The final course focuses primarily on contemporary cases and discussions to consider the institutional context of ethics, with the intent of helping my students understand the state of the field today. The top-line subjects we’re discussing include:

  • What is Ethics?
  • Codes of Ethics and Professional Standards
  • Museums, Money and Power
  • Ethical Curatorial Practices
  • Deaccessioning
  • Repatriation, Restitution and Human Remains
  • Issues in Ethical Conservation
  • Decolonization, Indigenization and Legacies of Colonialism
  • Working with Communities
  • Museum Neutrality + Social Justice
  • Environmental Sustainability
  • (Some) Issues Related to Digital Practice
  • Labor Issues
  • How to negotiate ethical issues as an emerging professional

Discussions about diversity are incorporated throughout, as are conversations about power (and who has it, who doesn’t). Being the first iteration of the course, I’m sure there are gaps and areas of practice that are missing or could be more effectively discussed, but after week three of class, this feels like a good starting place. It’s worth noting that this is now a core course for all students studying Museum Studies at GW, which they will take in their first year, so that considerations about ethics and ethical practice underpin the program.

Thank you my colleagues at GW, Gregory Stevens at the Institute of Museum Ethics, Ellie Miles, Jennifer Kingsley and everyone who weighed in on the initial Tweet for your thoughts. In anyone is interested in reading the syllabus in more detail, get in contact with me and I’ll send it your way.

a new punk.

A couple of weeks ago, I put out a call for a collaborator, co-host and co-producer for Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. I was overwhelmed by how many people reached out to find out more and put themselves forward. I had in-person or phone calls with nine potential collaborators, who ranged from people I knew very well to strangers with impressive or intriguing backgrounds within the sector.

Through those discussions, a few things became clear:

  • Museopunks has become more than a podcast for me. It is how my professional identity expresses itself. It is my professional practice. The potential collaborators who stood out where the ones who understood that innately.
  • Museopunks is vehicle for discussing boundary-pushing work in museums with an intersectional approach and nuanced focus. But because Museopunks tackles wide-ranging topics, the best collaborator was not necessarily someone with deep knowledge around a single aspect of progressive museum practice, but broad curiosity about museums, their place in the world, and their institutional practices.
  • Since my collaborator will help shape the show, I wanted someone who was aware of the important issues in the sector and who has vision for ways that we can approach them in a “museopunks” way. I had one conversation with a potential collaborator who had great vision, but whose approach to storytelling was so different from my own that it felt like we were talking about a different show. Although collaboration will change the show by necessity, it was critical that my collaborator shared my vision of the work itself.

I’m thrilled to announce that I have, indeed, found a new Punk to join the show: Ed Rodley, Director of Integrated Media at the Peabody Essex Museum. Ed and I have worked together on a number of project over the years, including CODE|WORDSHumanizing the Digital and the MCN2015 Conference. He is one of the smartest museum thinkers I know, and I never stop learning from him. As a bonus, we just finished working on a Museopunks episode together (recorded before I started looking for a collaborator, but probably part of the inspiration for doing so).

Although I’ve (perhaps unsurprisingly) ended up with a collaborator whom I know well, and have worked with for years, this process was a wonderful, generative one and has encouraged me to think more creatively about other ways that Museopunks might be able to explore other forms of collaboration, such as having regular guests and correspondents-from-the-field. While I do not know exactly what form that will take, the next few months will include some behind-the-scenes discussion, exploration and experimentation, as we look at the longer term impact of these discussions. I hope that many of the people I connected with in the last few weeks may be part of the future of the show.

Thank you to everyone who reached out, or who forwarded my post to friends and colleagues with recommendations for connection. It was wonderful to get better acquainted with listeners, colleagues from the sector, and potential collaborators. We have a sector filled with brilliant people, y’all. 

And Ed… welcome to the show! 

Looking for a collaborator on Museopunks

If you’re reading this, you probably know that I host and produce a podcast called Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. For the first couple of years of its life, Museopunks was a collaboration between myself and Jeffrey Inscho. It was one of the best collaborations I’ve ever worked on.

Jeffrey left the museum sector in early 2018, and since that time I’ve been trying to keep museopunks going on my own, but it’s been tough. I lack the technical chops to make great audio, and it’s harder doing the conceptual work around episodes without someone to bounce ideas off. The podcast, while relatively easy with two people, has been harder to produce by myself, and I’ve struggled to maintain a regular production schedule. So, I am officially starting the search for Museopunks’ second co-producer.

What I’m looking for: a collaborator, co-host and co-producer who is motivated by changing museums for the better – making them more welcoming, more diverse and equitable, better prepared to think about and deal with the implications of digital technologies. The podcast started in 2013 with a focus on tech, but my sense of what progressive practice in museums looks like today has grown considerably. You can get a sense of the kinds of topics I’ve been covering here.

Tech/audio production skills would be great but not necessary. What is essential is curiosity, open-mindedness, good listening skills and thoughtfulness about museum practice. For me, being a good host means making space for other voices and perspectives to shine.

The podcast is sponsored by the American Alliance of Museums, and they are super supportive of the work that we’ve been doing. Although there is a small annual honorarium, this is more a “love and glory” kind of project. That said, it’s been one of the most rewarding projects I’ve worked on and has offered so many opportunities and expanded my understanding about museums several fold.

At this stage, I’m putting feelers out for anyone who might be interested in a discussion about a collaboration. If this is you, or you know someone I should be talking to about this, please let me know or get in touch via Twitter.

BTW – This is pretty scary, because Museopunks is intimately important to me, but I want it to have the opportunity to be the best it can be going forward, so it’s time to let go a little bit and open to new possibilities.


Kids, consent and privacy: #musesocial edition

I had an interesting conversation last week about the concerns of consent and privacy when using photographs of vulnerable populations on social media. A question came up about developing takedown policies for social content, which I hadn’t considered before. Some images of people that might be appropriate when put online might later become problematic for the person whose photo had been taken–for instance, if the person whose photograph was shared experienced changed circumstances and no longer wanted to be associated with or publicly represented by that period in their life.

While those ideas were still marinating, I saw a Tweet from Kate Carruthers linking to a piece on FastCompany by a 14 year old who quit Facebook after discovering that her mother and sister had been sharing social content about her for more than a decade of her life without her consent.

Then, several months ago, when I turned 13, my mom gave me the green light and I joined Twitter and Facebook. The first place I went, of course, was my mom’s profiles. That’s when I realized that while this might have been the first time I was allowed on social media, it was far from the first time my photos and stories had appeared online. When I saw the pictures that she had been posting on Facebook for years, I felt utterly embarrassed, and deeply betrayed.

There, for anyone to see on her public Facebook account, were all of the embarrassing moments from my childhood: The letter I wrote to the tooth fairy when I was five years old, pictures of me crying when I was a toddler, and even vacation pictures of me when I was 12 and 13 that I had no knowledge of. It seemed that my entire life was documented on her Facebook account, and for 13 years, I had no idea.

I could understand why my mother would post these things; to our extended family and her friends they were cute, funny moments. But to me they were mortifying. Scrolling through my sister’s tweets, I saw what my sister had been laughing about. She would frequently quote me and the random things I would say, it seemed anything I had ever said to her that she thought was funny was fair game. Things I had no idea she was posting online.

I had just turned 13, and I thought I was just beginning my public online life, when in fact there were hundreds of pictures and stories of me that, would live on the internet forever, whether I wanted it to be or not, and I didn’t have control over it. I was furious; I felt betrayed and lied to.

My husband and I have chosen not to put photos of our daughter online in large part because of these concerns around consent, privacy and representation. But I wonder now about museums and other institutions who use photographs of children and other vulnerable populations on their social media channels. How many institutions are thinking about or actively addressing the long-term footprint of their social media output? While there are often strong legal and ethical protections over the use of images of children, which require consent by a responsible adult, children themselves do not necessarily have the right or ability to consent to the use of their photographs. And although museums do not necessarily have the habit of putting images up that might seem embarrassing or problematic up, we are also not in the best place to define how someone else wants to be represented over the long term.

I asked this question in brief over the weekend, and got a few interesting responses, but I’d like to hear more about if and how institutions are thinking about this issue.

Has your institution have conversations about this topic, or the circumstances of removing old images from social media? I imagine there might be other reasons for taking down old social pics images, such as those Bethany Noel Nagle mentions, but I’d like to hear if anyone has a clear strategy for unpublishing old social images.

What does your institution do? What do you think they should be doing?

An ode to small change

I’m sitting in my office in Washington, DC, following the Tweets from the annual Museums and the Web conference. The keynote speaker is Tim Phillips from Beyond Conflict, who’s tackling the topic, Building More Inclusive Communities: Lessons From 25 Years On The Front Lines Of Peace

There is some great discussion surrounding this keynote, including a wonderful thread on institutional transformation. This Tweet stood out to me.

This is so important. When we talk about holistic systematic overall, radical change, or completely rethinking our institutions, the size and complexity of the problem is, honestly, beyond comprehension. Institutions are incredibly complex, built upon tradition and legacies, filled with people of competing perspectives, and deeply enmeshed within other systems and institutions. All of this means that the kind of systematic overhaul that sees them change completely (and quickly) is unlikely without true revolution (which is, itself, highly destructive).

We can all make change and impact that helps address systemic issues, and build in deep and ongoing shifts in our institutions. As nikhil suggests, the personal is an important starting point. Much of the time, those changes will be small and hyperlocal, rather than the dramatic overhaul that we might impatiently demand. Yet if everyone who wants to see museums that are, say, more inclusive and equitable makes small, persistent changes in every aspect of their work that they can impact, the effects will be real. This might mean changing the recruiting structures and processes for a program or position you’re involved with (or looking for someone with different qualities, skills, and experiences from what you’ve looked for in the past). It could mean ensuring that your organisation’s job applications work well on mobile. It could involve instituting a training program for junior staff (especially your guards, cleaners, and visitor services staff), to better grow their knowledge and professional skills, and intentionally creating an internal pipeline for those staff into other roles. Invite someone to a meeting who wouldn’t normally be included. Borrow a wheelchair and test out each of your exhibitions to see how and where the experience is less rewarding for those visitors in a wheelchair, and then act on that knowledge to make change. Use your budget differently.

These ideas might be simplistic, but they’re also concrete, and they shift the domain of accountability from the nebulousness of “we”, to the specificity of “me”. The rhetoric, demands, and expectations of revolutionary, transformational change can be self-defeating, and overwhelming. To argue for small change feels counter-intuitive, as though I’m abandoning the cause. But what a call for small, persistent change makes possible is accountability. We can all be accountable (to ourselves, to our peers) for small change in ways that is close to impossible at an institutional level. We can all ask ourselves, at the end of a week or year, what did I do that made things better?

What do you think? Could this approach help you reimagine how to make an impact and make change? What have you achieved this year that you feel proud of for its positive impact on the way your institution or community works? What positive change have your helped bring into existence?