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What’s the Deal on Dealing?

Category: Collections Stewardship

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.


Q:

My museum is hiring a director who owns a large collection of historic artifacts. He’s an attorney but for many years has run an antiques business on the side. His collections (in effect, his shop’s inventory) significantly overlap with our museum’s focus. This has caused a firestorm of controversy, both inside the museum and in the local press. On the one hand, no one is questioning his scholarly credentials—he has a master’s degree in history from a prestigious university. On the other hand, people are crying “conflict of interest.” He has promised to close the antiques store but says he may still sell an occasional piece from his collection, especially since he is taking a “huge cut in pay” to work for a nonprofit. Can you help us sort through this ethical minefield?

A:

Nothing we say is likely to make this flap calm down, as it is based as much on emotion as on facts. But it is a universal enough tale that it is worth going over the ground again.

First off, national standards and best practices are not going to settle this for you. The most pertinent reference is the AAM Code of Ethics for Museums, which states “loyalty to the mission of the museum and to the public it serves is the essence of museum work, whether volunteer or paid. Where conflicts of interest arise—actual, potential or perceived—the duty of loyalty must never be compromised. No individual may use his or her position in a museum for personal gain or to benefit another at the expense of the museum, its mission, its reputation and the society it serves.” That would seem straightforward enough. But notice it has two clauses: “using his or her position” and “at the expense of the museum.”

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Conceivably, your new boss’s collections might skyrocket in price due to his association with your august institution. Or (more plausibly) he might use his position to schedule a wildly popular exhibit on, say, daguerreotypes, thus driving up the value of comparable material in his collection. But how does harm the museum? Would people think he polluted the entirely disinterested and objective exhibit-selection process (excuse me while I cough), elevating a subject otherwise unworthy of scholarly attention?

But, as your question points out, this situation has created in the local community the “perception of conflict of interest” cited in the code of ethics. This should be carefully handled through the creation of thoughtful policies and procedures. The board could stipulate it be informed of any sales from the director’s private collection, for example, and establish that the museum has the right of first refusal. It might insist that he not acquire new material while in the employ of the museum. (Though, as John Simmons points out in Things Great and Small: Collections Management Policies, some museums actually encourage personal collecting by staff as a form of professional development.) If there really is a concern about his steering content inappropriately, he could be required to recuse himself from exhibit selection decisions. But at some point you have to ask yourself, why else would you hire this guy if his expertise weren’t relevant to his job?

If it isn’t clear how, exactly, the director will benefit at the expense of the museum, why are people getting so upset? Is his potential profit really the heart of the controversy? I’m not sure it is. Reading between the lines of your query, I detect a strong whiff of indignation that a dealer—a dealer!—is being hired to head a nonprofit institution.

A decade ago, there was a clear dichotomy in the museum field—a taxonomy, if you will, that classified people as nonprofit museum employees (read: virtuous, scholarly, mission-driven, self-sacrificing, altruistic) or as for-profit consultants and vendors (read: predatory capitalists out for a buck). People who moved from the first category to the second experienced profound culture shock as they found themselves on the “outside” and treated very differently by colleagues and associations alike.

That’s changing. For one thing, museums are outsourcing more functions. Some people are choosing to become independent contractors because of the work-life flexibility it affords. Others have been laid off but want to keep working in the field they love, so they hang a shingle or work for a vendor. We must look beyond the traditional training grounds to recruit qualified, interested people to lead our institutions. We hope these people are already passionate about what we do (art, science, history, etc.). It is quite likely, if they don’t work in museums now, that they express that passion in other ways—collecting historic artifacts or fossils, for example, or running an art gallery.

Museum practitioners often get riled when the board hires a director from the for-profit sector. It certainly isn’t true that a businessman or businesswoman automatically knows how to better balance the budget. But it also isn’t true that they are automatically ignorant philistines who don’t care about nonprofit mission. There are lots of entrepreneurs who care deeply about what they do, see it as supporting a larger social good and who (along with their nonprofit cousins) could have made more money by becoming a … (fill in the blank with your choice of stereotypically soulless capitalist profession).

Things are going to be more complex in the future—and not just technologically. Clear boundaries and distinct categories for people and institutions are convenient, but they may be a thing of the past. Museums are increasingly becoming “emergent enterprises”—bundles of services and experiences created by many people working together inside and outside their walls. And the rate of migration into and out of internal staff from other sectors is probably going to rise.

Does this mean standards, particularly ethical standards, are no longer relevant? Of course not. But they may have to be more nuanced. We see this across the board as policies become more difficult to write, as museums move from “no food or drink in the galleries” to “how can we control risks to collections while making the museum a place where people want to hang out with friends?”

So maybe we had better focus on how to determine whether our new leaders are delivering what we expect—great exhibits and better interpretation, as well as a stable bottom line—and learn to deal in a sensible, transparent and accountable manner with the flexibility that entails.


Elizabeth E. Merritt is founding director, Center for the Future of Museums.

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