By Susanne Boersma
“There is no part of the museum that is free of ethical implications.”
(Besterman 2006, p. 432)
Starting from this statement by Tristiam Besterman, it is only logical that many of the POEM projects, including my own, will address ethics and ethical implications when looking at memory practices. My research project studies the processes of participatory projects with people who have been forced to migrate with the aim of identifying the wanted and unwanted consequences of these processes. To understand the range of experiences of these processes, I have spoken to museum practitioners and project participants about their motivations, potential conflicts, the outcomes and their current relation to the museum. In conducting my research, I am continuously considering the ethical implications of my actions and the conversations held with former project participants. The ethical questions I am asking in this position are similar to those that are to be asked by museums as part of their participatory work. Hoping to fully grasp the possible implications of the studied projects, I seek out and discuss ethical challenges and their impact on the participants. Based on my initial findings and literature on ethics and museums I put together a guest lecture for the Radboud University in Nijmegen, hoping to gain additional views on what museums and heritage can or should do when dealing with memory that is not their ‘own’. For this POEM Newsletter, I will combine the lecture and group work with the ideas raised through interviews to question some of the ethical implications of potential socially inclusive practices.
As Besterman’s quote suggests, memory practices are without a doubt ridden with ethical complexities. Ethics in museums are often discussed in relation to practices of restitution and decolonialisation, but also apply to the participatory exhibition-making processes or interventionist projects. Discussing ethical implications of museums and heritage sites, I refer to the simple explanation of ‘ethics as moral guidelines that inform our activities and decisions’. Considering that these moral guidelines are taught (Murphy 2016), they are subject to change and cannot be thought of as universal. Their transformation is dependent on social, political, technological and economic circumstances (Marstine 2006); the change must be perpetual to reflect current contexts and ideas. This can easily be understood when looking at former practices embedded in colonial contexts, which at that time, by white Europeans were deemed ethical. Past examples do not only show the need for constant reconsideration, but also reiterate the lack of perspective from those involved or represented. According to the American Alliance of Museums, ethics need to evolve to support museums in their commitment to serving present and future generations (AAM 2000).
Especially this outlook onto future practices sparked an interest with the students. Through discussion on the potential to future-proof ethics, or to consider what ethical conduct might look like in the future, we gained better insight in what is possible today. With a focus on memory practices that are currently prominent in museums and on heritage sites, it became evident that practitioners need to continue to seek out the boundaries and aim to go beyond them by connecting and engaging with memories otherwise not represented. This underlined that participatory practices should start by speaking to people who are often left out, and include their stories for their own gains and objectives. The memory institution should, in this case, serve these communities rather than aim for goals that come from within the institution itself. The AAM’s idea of serving present and future generations is most interesting to me, as it implies the need to consider the long-term effects of museum practices. It poses the need to consider project outcomes not only directly after they have been completed, but to reflect on them much later too. Starting from these ideas and the related concepts, the students and I discussed different examples of museum exhibitions, collections, the transformation or building of museums, memorials and statues to understand exactly why certain projects lead to protests and to address the need for multiple perspectives. In our conversations, we touched upon the complexity of narrative and language, the way in which a museum worked with people, questions around restitution, the potential to upset or contradict certain museum visitors, and expected or instructed behaviour on dark heritage sites.
Ethics of engagement
The discussion with the students also brought up new ideas about how to address the ethical implications in the case studies selected for my research project. One of their and my main considerations was about perspective, because who decides what is good and what is bad? Whose moral guidelines were used to inform these memory practices? It is especially this aspect of ethics and ethical practices that the students picked up on, as they contributed the need to assess the roles of the different stakeholders in the process. As museums are paid for and informed by governments or other funding bodies, it is important to consider their role in the decision-making processes. A better understanding of the dynamics here will allow for an overview of the perspectives that inform the ethical considerations and their boundaries. This specifically points towards the need to involve people whose memories will be addressed already at the start of the project. The students addressed this too, as they discussed different case studies and proposed these practices need to be connected to notions of respect and empathy.
At the same time, they brought up that subjectivity is an important instrument in addressing ethical perspectives and acknowledging potential issues that might come out of the project or exhibition. Allowing for a subjective approach to telling stories, building narratives and losing sight of the institutional voice, museums can more easily make room for contributions from outside of the institution. This, firstly, will reflect diverse ethical considerations, and secondly, expand the outlook and practices of these institutions going forward. These thoughts are not yet fully integrated in ethical codes from AAM and ICOM and they, possibly for this reason, do not reflect memory practices to date. The changed contexts allow for reflection on museum practices and highlight the importance of intrinsically involving participants – bringing in their contexts and perspectives – from the very beginning.
The preparations for the lecture, the additional reading and the discussions have further informed my thinking about the ethics of the memory practices I am studying. The complexity of ethical questions has drawn out the need to always involve those with different life worlds, different cultures or perspectives, to understand the potential implications of certain practices, narratives or ideas. The changing context is already evident for the projects that are subject to the study, which took place only a few years prior. Shaped and contextualised by increased awareness of inequalities, mainly emphasised due to COVID and the Black Lives Matter protests, the understanding of what is ethical has changed for the white cis-gender heterosexual museum practitioner. However, the ethical implications have always affected those involved and it is important to consider this context despite and in light of this ‘new’ awareness.
For this newsletter article, Susanne Boersma drew on her own research and the discussions she had during a guest lecture at the Radboud University in Nijmegen. Susanne a Marie Skłodowska-Curie PhD fellow at Museum Europäischer Kulturen – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (SPK) and the University of Hamburg as part of the EU H2020 project POEM. She assesses the formats and outcomes of recent participatory projects in museums in response to the refugee protection crisis. She was involved in setting up the Changemakers for Migration network for Hello Europe, Ashoka, and recently co-edited What’s Missing? Collecting and Exhibiting Europe (2021). She holds an MA in Art Museum and Gallery Studies from the University of Leicester. She can be reached at email@example.com or found on Twitter as @susanneboersma.
American Association of Museums (2000) AAM Code of Ethics for Museums. Accessibe online: https://www.aam-us.org/programs/ethics-standards-and-professional-practices/code-of-ethics-for-museums/
Besterman, Tristram (2007): Museum Ethics. In Sharon Macdonald (Ed.): A Companion to Museum Studies, pp. 431–441.
Marstine, Janet (2011): The contingent nature of the new museum ethics. In Janet Marstine (Ed.): Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 3–25.
Murphy, Bernice (2016): Charting the Ethics Landscape for Museums in a Changing World. In Bernice Murphy (Ed.): Museums, Ethics and Cultural Heritage. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 19–42.
 The guest lecture ‘Ethics of Memory Practices’ took place on 1 February 2021 as part of the course ‘Into the Dark: The Ethics of Tourism’ taught by László Munteán and Charley Boerman at the Radboud University in Nijmegen (NL). This course is an elective chosen mainly by students from the MA in Art History and the MA in Tourism.
 The term ‘dark heritage’ is derived from the concept of dark tourism, and refers to heritage sites that are linked to death and tragedy, such as monuments and places where many people died.
 The American Alliance of Museums Code of Ethics can be viewed here: https://www.aam-us.org/programs/ethics-standards-and-professional-practices/code-of-ethics-for-museums/
 The ICOM Code of Ethics are accessible via: https://icom.museum/en/resources/standards-guidelines/code-of-ethics/. ICOM has recently appointed a new International Committee on Ethical Dilemmas (IC Ethics) to offer a space for discussion on ethics for professionals, in addition to the guidelines and checks provided by the ICOM Ethics Committee (ETHCOM). More about this new committee can be found here: https://www.ic-ethics.museum/about-us/