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CultureGrrl the Oracle: Hot-Button Issues Surveyed by Center for the Future of Museums UPDATED


I’ve been called many names, but, until now, “oracle” has not been among them.

That’s how the American Association of Museums’ new Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) is referring to the museum professionals and other experts (including me) enlisted to identify and reflect upon emerging ethical issues that museums will likely confront in the coming decades.

This nascent think tank, supported with funds from the federal government’s grantmaking Institute of Museum & Library Services (IMLS), was organized in partnership with Seton Hall University’s Institute of Museum Ethics (which had tapped me last April as a panelist for its thought-provoking Hide/Seek symposium).

Identifying emerging ethical issues is just the beginning of our group’s crystal ball-gazing. Here’s what will happen in the next round of this brainstorming exercise, according to AAM’s description:

The Oracles will use an online survey to forecast how the field’s position on these issues will shift over time, and explain their reasoning. CFM will summarize their responses and send it back to the Oracles along with the original questionnaire, encouraging them to revisit and revise their answers in light of the narrative of their peers.

In the course of multiple rounds, the Oracles will surface important broad issues, and may come to consensus on some points. The process may also surface and clarify areas of disagreement, enabling us to create and explore diverse views of the preferred future [emphasis added].

A report on all this (which I hope will eschew any further use of “surface” as a transitive verb) will eventually be issued by AAM.

My own hope is that this welcome and urgently needed focus on museum ethics will lead to a more robust role for Seton Hall’s Institute of Museum Ethics, an outfit that’s rich in potential but thus far relatively modest in accomplishment (not to mention short on funding). At a time when financial exigencies are threatening to erode core principles and standards in the museum field, an objective, university-based institute, providing needed analysis and support for best practices in the public interest (and bolstered by a Museum Studies faculty), is an idea whose time has come.

I see this initial exercise as a possible pilot for an ongoing, potentially influential museum think tank that would regularly convene leading experts to ponder (and publish reports about) specific hot-button issues, both in private conclaves and at freewheeling, deeply informed public symposia. (I confess that this is a dream that I’d personally like to help move towards realization.)

Below are the five hot-button issues involving museum ethics that I submitted as an “oracle” for CFM’s forecasting project. For CultureGrrl readers, it will come as no surprise that these developments deeply concern me:

Increased Pressure to Monetize Collections and/or Raid Acquisition Endowments: With a decline in other income sources, museums (including university museums) are feeling increased pressure to sell art to fund operations and pay debts. This needs to be forcefully addressed, possibly through legislation.

—Rent-a-Show: There has been a proliferation of “masterpiece” shows drawn from a single museum, designed to raise substantial income for the art-rich lending institution at the expense of the art-poor borrowing institution. This exploitation of the collection as a cash cow is contrary to the collegial relationship that should exist among sister institutions and ultimately could up the ante for everyone.

UNESCO Convention for the 21st-Century: Notwithstanding the various accords that have been reached, there are still numerous objects in museum collections with dubious provenances that may yet be claimed by foreign countries. A global plan for dealing with this issue—allowing (in certain specified instances) for repose, encouraging collaborative loans and creating a licit market—needs to be formulated and adopted.

Self-Interested Sponsorship of Exhibitions: With adequate financial support for exhibitions having become increasingly hard to obtain, there’s been a growing tendency to mount private-collection shows that are sponsored and/or influenced by the lending collector. Also, single-artist shows are increasingly sponsored, at least in part, by the artist’s dealer. The potential for conflicts of interest, improper usurpation of the curatorial role, and pay-to-play programming needs to be addressed.

Blatant Disregard of Donor Intent: State attorneys general and/or the courts usually rubber-stamp museum plans to deviate from deceased donors’ intent (thereby permitting the diversion of bequests, or the expansion or relocation of a museum that violate the founding donor’s explicit written instructions). Just because this is deemed “legal” by the courts doesn’t mean that it’s ethical or proper professional practice. Disregarding the wishes of past donors can only discourage future philanthropy.

Attention CultureGrrl Constituents: Do you have any other pressing issues that you think I should bring to this table? If so, be sure to write your Oracular Representative!

UPDATE: You can directly contribute your own input to the CFM ethics survey here.

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