Inaugural 'Institute of Museum Ethics' Graduate Biennial

Considering "New Directions in Museum Ethics" Graduate Student Conference

written by Sophie Landres in New York
If etiquette is breached when one deviates from current customs, ethical crises occur when there is a deviation from tradition. Museums, which are charged with the responsibility of preserving traditions as well as their deviated forms, encounter crisis with regularity. Performing as conservationists and historic stewards on one hand, while abjuring their colonial heritage and maintaining their contemporaneity on the other, art institutions struggle to uphold higher standards of moral conduct than the corporate models they follow or the private collectors on which they depend. 

Organizations such as the American Association of Museums (AAM) and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) have created codes of ethics stipulating what constitutes ethical behavior. But in exchange for representing our past, reflecting the present and determining how we will be remembered in the future, we regard museums as more than mere law-abiding institutions. They are our cultural paragons. In an attempt to satisfy professional standards and the tacit demand for apotheosis, extensive research has been devoted to the subject of museum ethics. 

On November 14th, The Institute of Museum Ethics held its inaugural Biennial Graduate Student Conference: "New Directions in Museum Ethics" at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. Topics ranged from the administrative (such as archiving digital media, deaccession and fundraising) to the more existential functions of museums as they encounter new aesthetic precedents and ruptures in the paradigm.

Materiality, Immateriality and Authorship

Many of the Seton Hall speakers addressed how technology increasingly mediates the fabric, presentation and subject of art. Most museums currently utilize various types of social media for information sharing, audience engagement, publicity and outreach. Allowing their collections to function as interactive media is a realization of Marshall McLuhan's 1959 presage that "the spectator or reader must now be cocreator." Once information is in the public domain, it is allocated for public use and subject to public commentary. Unfortunately, the democratic intentions are often compromised by the lack of fact-checking and anonymity, and the discourse tends to become surrounded by blogosphere flippancy, dilettantism and aggression. 

Amelia Wong delivered an exemplary paper describing how the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum faced conflicting responsibilities to the public when Holocaust deniers used one of their YouTube postings as an opportunity to publish insulting messages that spread hate as well as misinformation. Decidedly anti-censorship, the museum had enjoyed the dialog and documented argumentation possible through its remediation. But relinquishing control over their media left it vulnerable to historic sabotage and its integrity as a memorial was jeopardized because of it. 

Opting out of remediation will ensure a museum's obsolescence.  Moreover, ontological debate has determined that history benefits (if not requires) multiple perspectives. Yet the internet proves time and again that a multiplicity of voices does not guarantee historic accuracy. What then is a museum's right (or responsibility) to singular authorship?

More familiar contests over ownership and claims to intellectual property arise over the persistent materiality of objects and immateriality of images. Though ownership and authenticity are deemed postmodern issues that many contemporary artists and critics have moved beyond, ethicists remain sorting out the titles, documentation, and non-archival material left in conceptualism's wake. Appropriation disputes (such as the source of Shepard Fairey's Barack Obama campaign poster, which was discussed by the art and entertainment attorney, Walter G. Lehmann) are often determined by litigation. These cases set precedents that if undermined, may go on to adversely effect provenance law, thereby granting allowances for illicitly procured art. Here, a generosity of free usage is cut to condemn what happens when other things are taken without permission.

Authorship and Authority

Ethics become even messier when legal codes contradict. For example, when the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 protects artists' intent and the AAM decrees that museums have a responsibility to preserve art, who determines what is to be done with collections of intentionally ephemeral art work?  And if pieces are replaced (think: the formaldehyde shark in Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,) can it still be considered "an original?" The infinite reproducibility of digital media similarly confounds the codes as well as inventory catalogues and determinants of value. "Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter," wrote Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art and Mechanical Reproduction,  "And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object." For whom the conference repeatedly referred to as "stakeholders," this reconfiguration is a source of great anxiety.

Evidence that issues of ownership and authority remain unsettled is perhaps most visible through the lens of post-colonialist politics. The repatriation of ill-begotten artifacts and the equally illicit insistence of western culture upon "developing" nations, involves (as speaker Lydie Diakhaté explained) complicated acts of philanthropy, paternalism and continued exploitation. Whether multiculturalism will be able to outrun colonial legacies and keep up with geopolitics depends on how entitlement claims will be redistributed and universalized. Chelsea Haines offered New Orleans's post-Katrina Prospect 1 biennial as a model- less for exhibition design, than for how to rebuild communities and create discursive spaces in neglected parts of society. It is fair to ask for museums to be responsive to their communities but ambitious to assume they can act as trustworthy agents for social change. A reasonable compromise might lay somewhere between performing as repositories of social meanings and envoys of critical analysis (at their apogee.)

Market Forces and the Ethics of Compromise

Business decisions inevitably engender conflict of interests in which museums must compromise romantic intentions with the tremendous amount of power and money that surrounds their position. The New Museum of Contemporary Art's recent imbroglio involving the exhibition of a museum trustee's collection demonstrates how their very programming is an act of judgment and undeniable mediator of the art market. Yet despite their heft in the market, they are also public minions, enlisted to serve the enigmatic "collective good."  To some that prohibits their freedom to break from trusted convention and challenge orthodoxy; to others, that gives them the green light. If objectivity is a requisite for safeguarding objects, museums must refrain from curation that Peter Brown lamented often comes across as an "academic, postmodern indulgence." But if art institutions are also dealers of dialectics, they cannot curb their subjectivity from fear of debate or audience alienation.

The pedagogical concern is that ethical solutions exist in theory, but not in the professional world. To be intellectually progressive (yet accommodating to mass interests,) research centers (as well as flashy tourist destinations,) arbiters of good taste (but not snobbish about it,) and didactic (while entertaining,) museums struggle to monitor their internal actions, let alone their presence outside gallery walls and in the minds of society. For legal claims over intellectual property, moral claims over stewardship, and political claims over nationhood to tangibly coexist, contemporary ethicists point to the recognition of parallel contexts.

AAM and ICOM codes amend themselves at Sisyphean rates, redefining and standardizing as the rest of the world diversifies, rejects judgment and avoids materiality. Though these valuable regulators keep museums in check, post-colonialism and the remediation of information require control sharing, not tightening. New codes must be broad and provisional. Allowances should favor authenticity that is in the service of meaning, ownership that is contingent on public access and authority that is never absolute. Habits to the contrary may be deeply ingrained in institutional structures, but global movements toward
dissolving information barriers, dematerializing art forms and decentralizing localities break too many rules to keep enforcing.