Heather Broughton

The conversation

Heather Broughton, Neil Curtis, Issue 117/02, p17, 01.02.2017
What will be the big issues for museum ethics in the future?
Dear Neil: I believe the recently revised Code of Ethics will be fit for purpose to face the ethical challenges in the sector, but the code can’t be the only “tool in our box” if ethical behaviour is to be upheld institutionally and individually. We must face the fact that there will be an increasing temptation by local authorities to see the sale of cultural assets as an easy way of realising (one-off) revenue to offset (ongoing) statutory service pressures. As a result, listening to, and working with, our various communities will be more important than ever. Local pressure will play a vital role in reminding governing bodies and politicians that our museums and their collections are highly valued.

Best wishes, Heather

Dear Heather: I agree that the new code is an excellent foundation for museum ethics, and that the biggest immediate issue is probably financial pressure. Rather than simply trying to prevent sales, however, museums need to be open about how they can reconcile their purposes with the costs of maintaining collections. Related is the other big issue – politics. How should museums address immigration, media manipulation and ethnic identity? When does attracting new audiences and supporting freedom of speech slide into acquiescing in hatred and intolerance? Different museums will have different solutions, but an ethical approach is essential, with discussions that are truthful, critical, realistic and open.

Best wishes, Neil

Dear Neil: I agree about the wider issues. Last year’s events are forcing us into areas that require us to rethink at a local, national and global level. Media, medical, environmental and business ethics may all have implications for museums. Universal values of human rights are fundamental and the MA’s code is well placed to support development of global museum ethics in what seems to be a “post-truth” world. Collaboration with relevant and representative bodies internationally has to be an important step towards this goal, as has strong collaboration across the UK.

Best wishes, Heather

Dear Heather: Museums are not separate from the rest of society, nor are they all the same. That diversity of purpose should be fostered with rigorous ethical debate. To keep public trust, and to challenge the post-truth world, museums’ decisions must be critical and honest, addressing difficult issues with evidence and respect. I fear that trying to synchronise cultural institutions’ efforts will just be seen as attempted thought-control by the “liberal elite”. The code is not a protective shield, but offers an arena for principled and thoughtful discussions.

Best wishes, Neil

Dear Neil: Perhaps we should see our use of the code as important as, if not more important than, the code itself. The more we focus on the complex relationships between people and objects, the more we will learn about our sector and ethical practice. Every day, museum staff have to make real-world ethical decisions, and this may get tougher, given the political economic and social dynamics. Institutions will find ways of addressing ethical issues that best reflect their own circumstances, while ensuring that the user voice is never lost.

Best wishes, Heather

Dear Heather: The new code’s value is that it is educative, helping structure our thinking, rather than answering questions. But the most important ethical challenge is maintaining and developing people’s trust in museums. I am concerned that while many people see museums as repositories of facts, most staff now think of objects as having many competing truths, so the museum’s role is interpretation. We must avoid the hubris that has led to other institutions losing public trust because of a disconnection between public and professional perceptions. Rigorous and self-critical ethics are essential.

Best wishes, Neil

The Museums Association has appointed five new members to its Ethics Committee: Neil Curtis, University of Aberdeen; Tehmina Goskar, freelance curator, Cornwall; Diane Walters, University of Exeter; Victoria Hollows, Glasgow Museums; and Hannah Crowdy, National Museums Northern Ireland. They replace Jane Arthur, Tamsin Russell, Ciara Canning, Heather Broughton and Rachel Conroy

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