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?

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.