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Museum ethics are about value judgements. In making such judgements museum personnel is constantly valuing one option over another. This holds true for every aspect of museum work; from collecting policies and conservation to store priorities and exhibition. In recent decades there has been a growing concern in addressing ethical issues in museums as museum workers have juzium cultural sensitivity and social responsiveness to a degree unseen before. Most codes of ethics urge museums to give appropriate consideration to represented groups or beliefs.

In light of this, it has been recognised that exhibition of sensitive material, for example, must be done with great tact and respect for the feelings of religious, ethnic or other groups represented. Another issue concerns the display of unprovenanced material and repatriation. Yet, these are not the only ethical issues which exhibition developers are faced with. As museum workers we should constantly be reminded that exhibitions are active agents in the construction of knowledge.

This paper discusses the hidden assumptions on which museum presentation and interpretation are often based. Questions about ethical issues are often confused by reference to law. Yet, while laws control human activities and define methods of compliance, ethics muzihm standards of integrity and competence beyond that required by law Edson ; In the museum world ethics are generally seen as a set of guiding principles of good practice that museum professionals are advised to adopt in their various activities.

Museum ethics have no enforcement power – they are intended as a way of thinking, as a set of ideals that is shared by museum personnel and helps them to judge existing practices, discourage wrongdoing, and make decisions BestermanEdson ; Jufnal ; Sola ; Wylie Museum ethics are about personal commitment and a sense of moral accountability to the various groups that museums serve. As they go about their daily routine, museum professionals are constantly making decisions.

These decisions may range muzlum the more mundane aspects of collections management to the heated debate concerning the exhibition of disputed material. All decisions, however, involve value judgments, as one option must inevitably be valued over another.

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Museum ethics are preeminently about values, and ethical questions often arise from having to deal with competing values Edson Ethics are not carved in stone – at different times and different places in different cultures people go about sensitive issues in different ways, and different moral values apply.

Indeed, it has been suggested that ethical questions should primarily be understood as muzum in cultural values Goldstein and Kintigh Even within the same culture ethics change as the needs and values of society, and museums, change. How, then, can museums deal with ethical issues on a global scale? Museum and exhibition ethics are mainly about social responsiveness and honesty to the various audiences museums serve; they can be effective only if they are well known and members of the museum community abide by them Chelius Stark In this paper I will argue that adherence to particular codes of ethics or sets of ethical principles may be constructive only if coupled with a revised reflexivity on the role of museums in the contemporary world, a desire for openness, and a heightened sensitivity to the different cultural values of the groups represented in museums.

Indeed, as most researchers now accept, the complex reality of museums today calls for a reconceptualization of the museum ethics discourse Marstine Exhibitions are one of the main grounds on which ethical battles in museums are fought. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, exhibitions are to mzuium large muziu, about objects, and museum objects are by nature imbued with different values.


When objects are put on public display some of muziium values associated with them are opted for over others and this often leads to heated debates among the various mizium involved museums, curators, citizens, indigenous peoples, governments or nations, collectors, art dealers and so on; cf.

This paper is intended as a brief outline of significant ethical issues at play in muzihm exhibitions. Some of these issues are obvious and heatedly and repeatedly debated, but others are neither obvious nor discussed. Exhibitions are active agents in the construction of knowledge Moser In addition, the very act of presentation is primarily interpretive.

Even when they make claims to scientific objectivity and precision, exhibitions inevitably reflect the beliefs, assumptions and ethical values of the persons making the decisions. In this way they inevitably promote some jurnzl at the expense of others. This is usually not understood by visitors as information presented in museums is normally perceived as accurate and true Dean Two decades ago, Vogel This usually involves a visible statement by the exhibition curators that the content presented represents their own thoughts and beliefs, and that it is as accurate and true as current state-of-the-art knowledge of the subject allows.

Accuracy is about presenting up-to-date information, whereas honesty refers to the approach endorsed in presenting that information to the public Dean I believe that the concept of honesty may play a key part in resolving the tensions and ethical dilemmas involved in all exhibition work.

In the text that follows I will try to address this issue and examine what it may entail for both museums and the visiting public. Decisions about exhibition content bring about a whole set of crucial questions which may be divided into two groups. The first set of questions revolves around the need to provide content with context: How to approach the subject at hand? What objects or themes to include, and why? What information to choose for labelling, and why? Whose voice is it to be heard?

How much room is there for alternative voices or interpretations? And so on and so forth. For instance, although object A is an excellent specimen or it illustrates a desired point better, object B is exhibited instead because it is better preserved, or because it is more attractive visually. Occasionally, an object may be selected for inclusion to an exhibition because it simply fits better in the space available.

Shall we display the dead? And if yes, which is the best practice? Are we allowed to display objects of cultural or sacred significance for another culture as mere curios? Do we tell visitors the whole story behind collections that ended up in our museum in dubious or contested ways? Clearly, these are complex issues which cannot be dealt with in detail in the confined space of this paper; a brief overview of the main points is offered below.

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Putting human remains on display has traditionally been seen as having considerable educational potential for the visiting public, let alone their scientific interest Alberti et al.

There are also other reasons for using them in displays, such as to educate medical practitioners, to explain burial practices, to bring people into physical contact with a past people, and to encourage reflection DCMS Displays of ancient human remains, in particular, are a unique attraction, and many people expect to find them in museums Kilmister Display of a male human body in the Egyptian galleries of the British Museum photograph by the author.

Murnal standard justification for exhibiting ancient human remains is that they come from cultures long dead. Another justification is that nobody today makes claims for the ownership and possible return of such jutnal. Yet, feelings and reactions change when it comes to displays of recent human remains as the highly controversial Body Worlds exhibition 4 clearly attests.

Why, then, are we so sensitive about displaying mjzium corpses, and not so if the bodies are old enough or ancient? Is distance in time the only concern? The answer cannot be positive, and in fact there jural voices against putting even ancient human remains on display.

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A further issue concerns material from other cultures, particularly non-western. Material from early Native American burials or Maori shrunken heads, for example, have become the subject of heated international debate concerning their removal from display and possible repatriation and reburial Simpson As a result, many countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom have passed legislation in relation to the care and management of human remains see, among others, McManamon Criticism and debate about the display of human remains has also influenced museological practice: In response to the above, some museums have begun to adopt specific policies, and to approach their display in a different manner see, among others, Lohman and Goodnow The Petrie Museum of Archaeology, for example, put Egyptian human remains on display behind a shroud that visitors lifted if they so wished Swain Concern that all human remains should be subject to new codes and practices is growing.


At the same time, it is clear that there are no ready-made or universally applicable solutions for an all-encompassing discussion see Jenkins A way forward may be to sensitize the public on ethical issues related to the display of human remains, and share professional concerns with them.

Defining sacred objects is not an easy task. The very notion of sacred is subject to change. Furthermore, sacred objects in museum collections are removed from their original context and it is very difficult to associate them with sacred meanings.

Increasingly, however, museum staff are recognising and showing sensitivity to indigenous views, and the museum community is urged to realize that sacred objects are of even greater value to indigenous cultures than they are to museum professionals.

Problems relating to the display of sacred objects are varied, 8 but it seems that one of the main concerns is that in some indigenous cultures special ceremonies should be conducted or offerings made for sacred objects.

In the United States museums work with native peoples to make arrangements for the proper care of sacred objects. Some museums apply tribal cultural practices to their collections care.

In some instances tribal religious leaders have instructed museums about the care of objects. In other cases, museum staff have observed or witnessed the practices of tribal representatives who have offered to care for the objects Peers and Brown muziym In New Zealand, awareness of Maori beliefs about the spirituality of their taonga treasures 9 has led museums to exercise an increased respect: Moreover, exhibitions organised in consultation or collaboration with the communities represented is now a reality in many museums, especially in North America and Australia.

Members of the community are often invited as consultants or as guest curators; in some cases curatorship is entirely done by community members Simpson Collaborative exhibitions usually follow two models, which Phillips In community-based exhibitions the professional museum curator acts as a facilitator who puts his or her expertise at the service of community members, so jufnal their messages can be disseminated clearly and effectively see also Peers and Brown Muziym multivocal exhibitions both museum staff and community consultants work towards accommodating jirnal perspectives, and try to bring to the fore the muzum meanings attributed to objects and events by both scientists and community members.

Clearly exhibitions of both human remains and sacred objects require acute sensitivity on the part of museum curators as tensions and conflicts may easily arise.

As Young and Brunk jurnl In most cases visitors are completely unaware of this. How common are exhibitions that explain how the objects came into the museum? How many displays of Cycladic figurines or Benin bronzes around the world tell the story of looting?

How clear is it to visitors to muaium large universal museums such as the British Museum, the MET or the Pergamum Museum that considerable numbers of their exhibits are the product of plunder or illicit activities?

A point to consider is that museum exhibitions may raise visibility and spark interest in specific categories of objects. As many cases have illustrated, exhibiting illicit material can generate considerable bad publicity, which in some instances may lead nurnal increased looting of source areas Brodie et al.