Collecting politically sensitive material

Ethics case studies
Dilemma:

A social history museum is revising its collections development policy.

It wants to collect material relating to protest movements, and there is an internal debate about whether it should also collect material from the English Defence League (EDL) for possible future display.

Some staff members are concerned that this will legitimise the movement, while others want to capture all aspects of protest. A member of staff contacts the ethics committee for advice.

Response:

The Code of Ethics states that museums should “acquire, care for, exhibit and loan collections with transparency and competency in order to generate knowledge and engage the public with collections.”

There seems little doubt in this case that the collection of material that documents views of all stripes, including radical views, is ethical.

However, the museum may wish to set out further caveats in its collections development policy to limit the "legitimising effect" of collecting this material by, for example, refusing to pay for material relating to the EDL.

The issue becomes more complex where display of the material is concerned, as it is likely to cause public concern and create reputational risk for the museum. However, the code respects the editorial integrity of the museum in programming and interpretation and urges museums to “resist attempts to influence interpretation or content by particular interest groups” (para 1.3).

As such, if the museum chooses to display the material, it is the museum’s role to provide the appropriate context around the items to ensure that they are not acting as unwitting promoters of the group, nor giving undue prominence to the group relative to their actual support.

Note also that the code supports freedom of expression – unless the views expressed are illegal or inconsistent with the purpose of the museum as an inclusive public space (para 1.3).

The museum may decide that the material is an incitement to racial hatred, or may deem that it does not fit with the museum’s mission. Further guidance on these matters can be found on the Index on Censorship website.

Links and downloads

Code of Ethics

Index on Censorship: art and the law


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