Illustration: Jean Jullien

Digital

Danny Birchall, Issue 116/02, p14, 01.02.2016
Ethics apply to all channels
The Museums Association recently updated its code of ethics, which guides individuals and organisations in making sound judgments on behalf of institutions and their collections.

The code says little specifically about museums’ digital or online activities. On one level, it doesn’t need to: the three axes of public engagement, stewardship and integrity all relate strongly to digital activities. Digital technology seems particularly well suited to the access and engagement obligations to the public. It’s also great to see digital objects afforded the same statusas objects in physical collections.

In other areas, digital activity might pose new ethical questions. The code strongly supports responsible stewardship of collections. But what happens where exhibitions and catalogues include user-sourced contributions? Do museums owe the same duty of care to what they collect from the public (and what about where contributions may be sincere but inaccurate)?

The code also mandates that collections be used for public interest, but suggests no obligation that knowledge derived from the collections in the form of academic papers and so on should be openly published. Open publishing is a big issue for academia – should it be the same for museums?

Digital ethics don’t exist in a separate realm from other ethics. But digital practice sometimes poses new questions that we must use and extend existing ethical frameworks to answer: it’s important that these remain open and forward looking, and are reviewed regularly.

Danny Birchall is the digital manager at the Wellcome Collection, London

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