Changing nature of private sponsorship raises ethical questions

Nicola Sullivan, 05.11.2015
Institute of Museum Ethics director warns of ethical complexities of philanthropy
As wealth becomes “concentrated in the hands of fewer individuals” more museums will be confronted with ethical dilemmas, warned Sally Yerkovich, the director of the Institute of Museum Ethics in the United States.

Addressing delegates at the Museum Association’s Annual Conference and Exhibition in Birmingham, Yerkovich said philanthropic sources used by museums have decreased and as a consequence donors are more likely to push for greater control over the money they give.

“More and more museums will be confronted with situations in which their integrity as independent and educational institutions working to benefit the public will be tested. They will need to be vigilant to make sure they retain their reputations as reliable and responsible entities,” said Yerkovich.

She also said that in recent years seeking corporate support has become more complicated, evolving from “relatively straightforward philanthropic contributions” to arrangements that are developed via an organisation’s advertising or marketing arm.  

“More challenges to a museums integrity of exhibitions and programmes are rising,” she said, adding: “Curators know that ideas must appeal to sponsors and the audiences that sponsors choose to reach.”

Yerkovich said that the MA’s draft Code of Ethics provided an opportunity for museum professionals to have further discussions about the new ethical dilemmas facing the sector.

“The MA’s new code takes on the challenge of clarifying museum ethics by taking on three essential aspects of a museum’s work: the museum’s ultimate responsibility to the people that it serves; its obligations regarding collections stewardship; and the essential commitment to maintain integrity.”