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Museums need ethics departments

Image: Tom Lobo-Brennan.

Erich Hatala Matthes, Why museums need their own ethics departments, Apollo, 4 September 2017

From the case of Python’s bell-krater to the Dana Schutz affair to the debate over Confederate monuments, recent events suggest that museums need to treat research on the ethics of art as integral to their work. These high-profile cases force museums to wade into complex ethical questions about cultural property, cultural appropriation, and legacies of injustice that they have not always adequately prepared for, and which often disappear from their agendas once the PR fires have been put out. While museums may have codes of ethics that aim (with varying degrees of success) to regulate professional conduct, they lack internal institutional support for sustained research into these pressing and fundamental issues. Adopting the ethics of art as a core area of research should be embraced as part of the museum mission.

Consider, by analogy, the rise of bioethics as a research focus at medical institutions. Obviously, medical professionals also have codes of conduct that govern their behaviour, but this is only a fraction of the subject matter of bioethical research. Rather, bioethics focuses on the production of knowledge concerning the deep ethical questions raised by the practice of medicine: How should we incorporate risk into our approaches to treatment? How should we understand the moral status of synthetic organisms? What responsibilities attend advances in gene editing? Pursuing these questions will of course have implications for policy and conduct; but they are extremely difficult problems, fascinating in their own right, that promise to shape not only codes of conduct but the very nature and scope of medical practice. Beyond addressing today’s ethical controversies, this research also lays the groundwork for addressing unknown challenges to come. Consequently, centres and departments of bioethics have arisen throughout hospitals, universities, and government agencies around the world.

In contrast, research into the ethical dimensions of art receives little support from the world’s museums, despite the fact that ethical questions about art arise on a seemingly weekly basis and command substantial public attention. This should come as no surprise. Art often forces us to grapple with tensions over identity and power, confront historical and persistent injustices, and reflect on our own duties and vulnerabilities; moreover, these issues also apply to the control, preservation, and distribution of art itself.

The recent controversy surrounding Confederate monuments illustrates this perfectly. What role should intention and context play in our assessments of public art? Should mass-produced statues, like the one that crumpled pathetically in Durham, even be regarded as art – and if not, how does this affect their status as historical artefacts? What role should the public play in controlling the art they live with everyday? These are not new questions, and rather than merely reacting to public controversy, museums could support serious investigation into these subjects and serve as leaders who shape a sophisticated public discussion that persists beyond the attention span of modern media. This is clearly a separate endeavour from promoting adherence to a professional code of ethics – while such lists of best practices have their place, they are not designed to address questions that resist simple, brief answers. Perhaps umbrella organisations such as the American Alliance of Museums, which has spearheaded the adoption of ethics codes in the past, could lead the way in fostering this pivotal next step for museums.

While I have focused here on cases concerning ethical violations, museums also have the potential to do tremendous good; expanding our moral imagination, facilitating communication across cultures, and providing avenues for the expression of political emotions and ideas that remain ineffable. Museums shouldn’t just be advocates for the power of the arts, but critical inquirers, leading research not only into art’s ethical boundaries, but also its ethical possibilities.

Art and culture constitute fundamental dimensions of human life, and they are shot through with ethical complications. Taking art seriously requires taking ethics seriously; not just through potted codes of conduct, but sustained and critical research. Just as the US National Institutes of Health have a department of bioethics, the Smithsonian, as a predominantly government-funded institution, should have a department that focuses on exploring the ethics of art and culture; other leading museums should follow suit. Such a move might open these institutions to new lines of criticism concerning their collections, practices, and histories, but it would also promise new avenues for manifesting the commitment to the importance of art that they claim as their mission.