Self-censorship

Ethics case studies
Dilemma:

A museum is planning a series of activities to commemorate a local attack by the German airforce in world war two.

The planning includes substantial involvement from a German museum and events aimed at reconciliation and understanding the events from the German perspective.

When the plans are submitted to senior management, all elements relating to German cooperation are deleted. The curator contacts the ethics committee for advice.

Response:

Self-censorship within museums is an issue faced by many in an era when public organisations are so open to criticism via traditional and social media.

It is perhaps understandable that risk-averse management would wish to avoid any potential controversy in order to cover their backs.

However, to allow self-censorship to become the modus-operandi of a museum means undermining the role of the museums to challenge audiences with new and different perspectives.

It also means that there is a real risk that museums will content themselves to working within their comfort zones and, over time, becoming stale.

In this case, it is important to understand the motivations for the deletion of part of the planned programming.

Has the section involving cooperation been deleted due to cost concerns? Is the senior management taking a personal view on the proposed cooperation? Or is it motivated by self-censorship and fear of what others may say about the museum?

If there are real grounds to believe that self-censorship has played a part in this case, it may be appropriate to remind the manager in question of their ethical obligations under the Code of Ethics.

The code states clearly that there should be editorial integrity in programming and interpretation (para 1.2), that the museum should support freedom of expression (para 1.3) and that the museum should “work in partnership with communities, audiences and supporters of the museums” (para 1.6).

The code also states that “information and research presented or generated by the museum [should be] accurate. Take steps to minimise or balance bias in research undertaken by the museum.” (para 1.4).

The opportunity to work with German counterparts on this project is an opportunity to cast new light on this history as well as to engage both communities and to build bridges between them. Provided that this programming is conducted sensitively and in consultation with the local community, the senior manager should act ethically and allow it to go ahead.

There is also a substantial body of work available to support decision-making for organisations at risk of censorship of self-censorship, including from the Index on Censorship, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, and the American National Coalition Against Censorship.

Links and downloads

Code of Ethics

Index on Censorship: art and the law


National Coalition on Censorship: best practices for managing controversy


International Coalition of Sites of Conscience


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