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The Next Frontier of Museum Ethics

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Here at CFM, we’re wrapping up Round Three of Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics. The survey closes Dec. 9 (there’s a link below if you still haven’t participated) and I can hardly wait to compile the input from our Oracles and the public.
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Most of the issues that have surfaced during the forecasting exercise are echoes of ongoing arguments from a hundred year or more of the museum literature. I’d lay money that John Cotton Dana (d. 1929) was blogging, I mean writing, about the obligation of museums to be economically accessible to the public; the ethics of making collections accessible; and the perils of conflict of interest when it comes to donors, sponsors and members of the governing authority. Maybe these will play out in new ways in coming decades, but we probably know the arguments and the players already.
But the forecast looks at one issue that may actually be new—or at least so different in degree as to be different in kind as well: the challenge of curatorial authority vs. crowdsourced input/community curation/participatory design.
Really? Community curation might be viewed as unethical?
Actually, this wasn’t a total surprise to me. As I work with various museums on futures forecasting, I’ve noticed that the biggest internal tension is usually on just this point. The curatorial staff often feel not just threatened, but morally outraged at the thought of letting amateur experts or your average woman-on-the street, contribute to (much less control) museum content. But elsewhere in the room, members of the education department, development staff and often the museum leadership are saying “we need to invite the community in. We need to be more than just a place they are welcome to visit. They need to feel this is their museum, that we value their talent, opinions and participation.”
The issue is not entirely new—some museums have long welcomed the input of select amateur experts. But tension is arising from a number of trends that expand and extend the nature of this participation. The growth of social media and the ubiquity of smart, hand-held, internet connected devices have fundamentally shifted the public’s expectations regarding authority and participation. As CFM documented in Museums & Society 2034, the MyCulture trend reflects an increasing desire on the part of audiences to do, not just view. People have grown accustomed to sharing and shaping opinion by Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare and a host of other social media. The first reference they turn to is Wikipedia, not an encyclopedia or the academic literature. And they know that they themselves could become Wiki-editors, or set themselves up as authorities with their own blog, Twitter stream or self-published work (even if relatively few of them do).
At the same time, many museum professionals see themselves and their organizations as the last bastions of accuracy and excellence. They believe that the greatest value they bring to the museum and its audiences is the deep knowledge and nuanced insight that come from years of study and experience. They believe the highest and best role of the curator is to be an expert, not a moderator, editor, compiler or convener. Even a little experiment (e.g., experimenting with labels with content provided by public contributors, in addition to the “official” text, in one small gallery) can seem like a profound threat to the ordered workings of the museum universe.
Personally, I think that when the AAM Accreditation Commission wrote the Characteristic of Excellence that reads “the museum’s interpretive content is based on appropriate research,” they meant that museums should be diligent in ensuring the material they present is accurate, and ensure they do not present bad information based on sloppy research. That’s different from saying that a museum can’t decide that “appropriate research,” in some cases, includes asking members of the public what they like, or what they remember, or what they think is important. But evidently, there are a variety of opinions on the issue.
Please weigh in on this issue—either using the comments section below or (even better) using this link to access the public version of Round Three of the ethics forecast, where you can address this and other issues.

If you are just now reading our forecast, you can get up to speed by reading earlier posts about the project.

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  1. Shouldn't be scary, using the input of the general masses, everyone has access to Wikipedia but only 5% of users add information. The curators expertise will always be a moderating influence, and when challenged by non expert or contradictory opinions could encourage debate, and justification, as to why interpreting decisions were taken, and what options were ignored and why. That's a conversation I'd love to see open up more. I think we ' the general public' are much more sophisticated consumers of information than we are often given credit for. Having said that it would be a presentation challenge to distinguish the expert, accurate and reasoned comment form the comments of Joe public, but as long as we know which is which, or are allowed to rate input, as with amazon reviews, the good comments will float to the top. I'm all for such experiments, bring it on, but then I'm one of the few that want to read more than the exhibit tags show.

  2. Why is this either/or and not both/and? We will always need authoritative curators. We should always be interested in what the community has to say.

    I often use Wikipedia not because I trust it, but because it often has great references to authoritative sources at the end of the article.

    As long as it is very clear what the source is, why is this an issue?

  3. To me, having worked as a curator in state historical societies & a decorative arts/contemporary design museum, it's been fascinating to watch how the role & *necessity* for the museum curator has waxed & waned over the last 30 years. And, it's been equally fascinating to see how the verb "curate" is now used in a "consumer" non-museum context, see for example.

    But I digress…what distinguishes the museum/institution context curator from community curators is that it's very difficult for the latter to be *accountable* for their perspective(s). If a museum curator's interpretation (or collection acquisition plan as curators *do* collect!) of a particular object/topic is somehow incorrect, controversial or otherwise lacking, it's clear who is accountable: the museum-based curator. Many community-curated exhibits are often a one-shot deal where a group of knowledgeable people (whose knowledge is frequently first-hand AND authoritative) come together to produce an exhibit & then, their work done, disband. Should a member(s)of the public take umbrage with the community curators' work for whatever reason, the accountability process is a challenge to construct in this context & by this point. Further, *some* community exhibits are more of a celebratory or commemorative nature for that community & can offer little in the way of critical perspectives that might be unpopular with that community's spokespeople but *should*, nonetheless, be heard. I certainly don't oppose community-curated products of whatever sort but there are certain qualities intrinsic to the museum curator's context that do not translate well to community curators.

  4. To answer the question of is community curation unecthical, I would submit that yes, it very well could be. To use the words of the exective director of the American Historical Association, "Nostalgia for an imagined past does more to obscure than it illumniate it." Objectivity is something that historians, curators included, strive for. Need I remind everyone that some of the most tragic events in human history derived from a misconception of history? Allowing unchecked "history" can be dangerous and therefore unethical. Historians self-censure. The public (there are always exceptions to the rule) may simply remember how things were remembered rather than how the actually happened. American Civil War is a good example. People tend to confuse historical memory with historical fact. That is where the historian and curator is needed. To mediate between scholarhip and the public's perception of history.

  5. We are hoping to present our 3D virtual environments to CAA2012 in Southampton UK as a potential tool for recreating archaeological reconstructions by importing models of laser scanned monuments.
    We have a 3D test environment running at present at When you click on this link you will be asked to download a plugin (agree to ActiveEx control) and you will appear in the environment as an avatar. This environment will allow for the simultaneous entry of 30 avatars. VOIP is embedded so you can chat normally with anyone else in the vicinity ( a headset is recommended). Sorry it is only PC accessible presently but will be MAC compatible in early2012 It is possible to import any 3D format file such as .obj, .max, .3DS, .lwo to develop extensive immersive educational spaces capable of being experienced in a group setting.

    Please click this link or paste it into your web browser:

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