Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 18, 2010
Bettina Messias Carbonell “New Directions in Museum Ethics:
Conference of Graduate Student Research”
Institute of Museum Ethics
Seton Hall University
November 14, 2009
College Art Association.

The museum marks a place where rule-based ethics and a reliance on principles, codes, laws, and mission statements actively intersect with situational ethics and the invocation of consequentialist arguments. While it may not be news that, in theory, the ethical dimensions of museum practice involve every area of the profession and all genres of museums, the manifold ways in which theory might confront those practices are sometimes less clear.

At New Directions in Museum Ethics: Conference of Graduate Student Research a diverse group, including graduate students, recent graduates, and senior scholar/practitioners in various specializations and disciplines, made their own contributions to that ethical project. The result was a collection of well-documented, intellectually rigorous, and at times strikingly original presentations. The conference provided some excellent examples of how refined critical lenses, analytical agility, and circumspection can be used to examine issues (old and new) of local, national, and global importance. Familiar topics, albeit addressed with reference to new particulars, included the ethics of exhibition, the ethics of conservation, and the role of the museum—as an agent of change, a figure for ownership, an advocate of stewardship, and a site of conscience. Many of the topics, questions, and comments explicitly or implicitly adopted a categorical, rule-based Kantian position by asking whether museum professionals, museum training programs, and even those engaged in museum critique are treating issues, audiences, and objects as ends in themselves, or merely as means to an end. Although much attention was given to newer art forms and technologies, the discussion demonstrated the continuing value of older ethical paradigms. At the same time, however, this discourse was invigorated by additions to and reformulations of these ethical questions. The shift in focus and priorities became most clear in the emphasis on varied constituencies, including artists, artisans, conservators, owners of objects, and custodians of historical legacies, and on multiple stakeholders, including professionals at work in the museum and the academy, members of the cultures and communities they seek to represent and serve, and those whose experiences and subject positions have yet to be addressed. A lexicon of ethical keywords used throughout the conference reflected these “new directions”; it included access, cultural patrimony, dialogue, exclusion, inclusion, indigenous claims, interaction, negotiation, repatriation, source communities, sovereignty, and transparency.

According to the conference program, the purpose of the New Directions conference was to bring “students, academics and museum professionals together to discuss transparency, accountability, social responsibility and democracy in the museum.” The conference structure—comprising three loosely themed panels with individual formal presentations, a keynote address by conservator Glenn Wharton, a concluding roundtable discussion with established museum professionals, and ample time for informal discussion—facilitated an interdisciplinary exchange of ideas. The participants represented graduate programs in Museum Studies, American Studies, American History, Art History, Archaeology, Law, and Visual Culture Theory. In terms of institutional affiliations, the United States dominated geographically with some welcome, and one might argue necessary, international representation, including Lusófona University, Lisbon; University Viadrina, Frankfurt; University of Leicester; and Reinwardt Academy, Amsterdam.

The first panel of the day, “Emerging Stakeholders,” considered contested sites, competing memories, and disagreements regarding longevity and visibility. Joshua Gorman, PhD American History, University of Memphis, focused on indigenous versus institutional claims on objects, including how and whether they should be exposed to exhibition. Thus he joined an ongoing discussion of “local” versus (museum) professional claims on objects, knowledge production, and stewardship—topics that have become essential to the dialogue on repatriation and, more recently, part of a lively debate about the concept of the “universal” museum. Jennifer Zazo, MA, Museum Studies, New York University, examined the African Burial Ground in New York City in order to discuss the clash of opposing interests that occurred when descendant populations exerted pressure on an institutional memorial project. In what was arguably the most provocative and original contribution to the panel, Heather Hope Stephens, MA, Museum Professions, Seton Hall University / JD candidate, DePaul University College of Law, probed the ethical dimensions of copyright law in cases where property is, from the artist’s point of view, ephemeral. This entailed a discussion of the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA) and the artist’s right to destroy versus the museum’s right to preserve. Finally, in a dual presentation, Léontine Meijer-Van Mensch, PhD candidate, Centre for Sociomuseology Studies, Lusófona University, Lisbon, and Paula Assunçãao dos Santos, PhD candidate, University Viadrina, Frankfurt, historicized a sequence of museum revolutions, proceeding from professionalization, to social awareness, to an emphasis on stakeholders. They anchored this discussion in a case study of (what some saw as) censorship and (others saw as) cultural sensitivity during an attempt to exhibit the (arguably provocative) work of an Iranian artist at the municipal museum of The Hague.

Under the rubric “New Arguments” a second group of panelists engaged issues of missions and permissions by considering the “proper use” of the museum space and its contents. Jennine Schweighardt, MA, Museum Professions, Seton Hall University, looked at the ethics of using a historical site, in this case Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, as a venue for popularly themed and revenue-generating programming tied to paranormal activity. Peter Brown, MA, Museum Studies, University of Leicester, then revived the longstanding argument about the educational role of the museum and raised an appropriately open-ended question. Using the Manchester Museum’s “poly-vocal” exhibition of “Lindow Man: A Bog Body Mystery” as his case-in-point, Brown considered whether the recent tendency to encourage debate in provocative exhibitions, rather than to strive for clarity, authority, and generic-learning outcomes, might be a “postmodern indulgence” or an example of sound constructivist pedagogy. Walter Lehmann, MA candidate, Museum Studies, George Washington University, took matters of property and propriety to the domain of appropriation art, a form and practice that generates new questions about exhibition ethics and intellectual property rights. In a particularly fine integration of theory and practice, Chelsea Haines, MA, Visual Culture Theory, New York University, focused on post-Katrina New Orleans and questioned the very notion of the well-defined and thus confined space of the museum. Her examination of the use of public space and adaptation of the biennial model to create a “decentralized exhibition” implicitly marked the city itself, rather than the museum, as both an exhibition space and a forum for the discussion of pressing civic realities.

The third and strongest formal panel was entitled “Changing Perceptions,” a fitting description of the overall terrain of the conference. In an excellent dual presentation, Virginia Commonwealth University graduate students Elizabeth Reilly-Brown and Marisa Day, PhD candidate in Art History and MA candidate in Art History and Museum Studies, respectively, took opposite and instructively polarized positions on the ethics of deaccessioning, thereby continuing the useful paradigm of the philosophical thought-experiment. With one arguing for the deaccession of all the holdings of their University Art Museum, and the other arguing for the deaccession of none, they examined the pedagogical as well as economic consequences of these albeit artificially polarized acts. In another approach to the expansive exhibition model introduced earlier by Haines, Lydie Diakhaté, MA, Museum Studies, New York University, interrogated the 52nd Venice Biennale and shared her probing analysis of aesthetic re-use. In looking at the French design and construction, in situ African use, and subsequent export and Italian exhibition of a prefabricated Maison Tropicale, Diakhaté considered the operations and consequences of colonialism and the complex issue of architectural and cultural patrimony. Invoking what might be called the ethics and losses of cultural exportation and transformation, she asked: Where are the traces of African life? Amelia Wong, PhD candidate, American Studies, University of Maryland, concluded this panel with an acute analysis of the ethical dimensions of social networking and related media. Her perspective on the ethics of censorship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum brought into focus the breakdown of distinctions between producers and receivers, the potentially decentralized nature of museum narratives, and the fact that greater parity now exists between museum and visitor in the production of museum narratives and interpretations. Wong not only introduced the notion that the museum is obligated to maintain an ethically responsive platform for dialogue, she also argued that a certain amount of decision-making and action is the responsibility of the museum goer. In making this turn to individual ethics it is worth recalling Susan Sontag’s analysis of what it may mean to regard “the pain of others.” Her mandate that we interrogate our roles as viewers and visitors takes on new meaning in the context of interactive technologies, both in the museum and in the wider space of Web 2.0. This point emerged again in the roundtable discussion when Janet Marstine, director of Seton Hall’s Institute of Museum Ethics, underscored the distinctions and connections between institutional and personal ethics.

Many of the issues raised by individual panelists resonated in or were anticipated by Wharton’s keynote address, “Expanding Representation in Conservation: From Hawaiian Public Sculpture to Media Installations at MoMA.” Wharton is conservator at the Museum of Modern Art and a research scholar at New York University in the Museum Studies Program and the Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center. With a balance of wisdom and humor he introduced two autobiographical case studies which, while quite different in their explicit cultural contexts, shared a concern with the relationship between museum professionals and particular stakeholders. The first involved his formative learning experience while engaged as conservator of a statue of Kamehameha I in North Khala, Hawai’i. This was, in Wharton’s words, a “model for participatory conservation.” The second involved his direct involvement in Pour Your Body Out (2008), in which the artist Pipilotti Rist was the stakeholder and the underlying computer codes for her multi-channel video installations became the property in question. The ethical issues here included proprietorship, specifically who should hold the code (in trust) for computer-based art, and the right to perform (including the training of performers). Wharton’s candid recollections supplied a crucial insider’s view of his subjects—a perspective academics, including this reviewer, often lack when offering ethically oriented interpretations from an analytical distance.

One of Wharton’s most salient points addressed the ethical distinction between what professional training prepares us to do and what stakeholders actually demand; this became a recurring theme in the subsequent roundtable discussion. “New Directions in Museum Ethics Scholarship” gave the audience an opportunity to engage with roundtable participants Marstine, Petra Chu (Seton Hall University), Juergen Heinrichs (Seton Hall University), Carlo Lamagna (New York University), and the moderators of the individual panels—Alexander Bauer (Queens College, City University of New York), Bruce Altshuler (New York University) and Steven Lubar (Brown University)—along with Wharton. In the course of this discussion several suggestions emerged: that we need to look forward to the next ten years and imagine the steps we might take, as researchers and teachers, given the topics presented in the conference proceedings; that we must give more attention to conflict-of-interest issues; that we must develop new skill sets; and that we must try to achieve greater diversity in museum-training programs, in terms of curriculum and the recruitment of students.

Attendees were left to ask: How will this conference and the scholarship, themes, and exhibitions that constituted its focus affect curriculum? Are training programs in conservation asking the critical questions raised by Wharton in his personal/professional narrative? Are we teaching and learning the interpersonal and ethical skills that would help us better engage with source communities? Perhaps Seton Hall’s Institute of Museum Ethics and the future practitioners it trains will offer answers and translate them into practice.

Bettina Messias Carbonell
Associate Professor, Department of English, and Coordinator, Humanities and Justice Studies Program, John Jay College, City University of New York