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?