I wish I could preview my Inbox from 2036. How come Outlook doesn’t have an option for that?
As a member of AAM’s staff Ethics Taskforce, I help answer plaintive, irate, indignant and panicked questions that come over our email. So I have a pretty good handle on what people grapple with, day to day, in their organizations. Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics, CFM’s joint project with the Institute for Museum Ethics, is trying to determine what museums will be grappling with 25 years from now. How can the field provide backup and support for colleagues if we lag five or ten years behind the issues? This is our chance to gear up for the ethical future. And this is my pitch for you to help by weighing in on the public version of the forecast.
Our expert and public forecasters have identified accessibility as an important ethics issue that will change significantly, in some way, in the coming decades. Reading through their (copious) comments on the forecast’s early rounds, it became clear that “accessibility,” as used by the forecasters, encompasses at least four different things:
- Physical and intellectual access to museums, their exhibits, programs and services
- Economic access to museums, their exhibits, programs and services
- Accessibility of collections and data
- Balancing access to collections against a responsibility to preserve collections
Forecasters raised some interesting questions. Is there an ethical obligation to make museums economically accessible (i.e., affordable), paralleling the obligation (aside from the legal requirements) that museums provide physical access to people with disabilities? Has technology, by making it feasible for museums to provide public access to huge amounts of data, created an ethical imperative for them to do so?
Some of the most heated comments that surfaced in earlier rounds of the forecast were about: access v. preservation. “Many visitors express a desire for increased access—a chance to touch objects, behind the scenes tours, etc.” commented one forecaster. “Has the pendulum swung too far toward preservation, and is it in the process of swinging back?”
Access always compromises preservation to some extent. The safest storage environment is the proverbial black box. But if no one ever accesses a collections object, how is that different from the object never existing? (Someone should modify Schrödinger’s cat dilemma to apply to museum storage.)
That’s an exaggeration, of course. No object is going to last forever, and no sane museum is going to let an object be torn to pieces by ravening fans. But where, in between, is a reasonable compromise? Has preservation historically been privileged over access (as our forecaster observed) and is our position as a field on that balance of power on the verge of changing?
To test whether the pendulum is about to reverse its arc, the current round of the forecast asks:
“Thinking about the ethics of balancing a responsibility to make collections physically accessible with a responsibility to preserve collections, do you feel that in the next twenty five (25) years museum standards will tilt more towards access or preservation?”
(Respondents select an answer on a scale that runs from Favoring more access through to Favoring Preservation.)
I hope you will weigh in on this issue—either using the comments section below or (even better) using this link to access the public version of round 3 of the ethics forecast, where you can answer this and other questions.
If you are just now reading our forecast, you can get up to speed by reading earlier posts about the project.