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Ethics and the Distributed Museum

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

I’m wrestling with the draft report of “Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics.” One of the most delightful things about this project is that, despite the constraints of format (multiple choice and free text in an online survey) the participants—both recruited Oracles and public opt-ins—freely expanded, diverted and added to the topics they selected for discussion.

As a result, the responses covered a lot of territory. Some comments were clearly about ethics (what people working in museums should or shouldn’t do), but sometimes our forecasters strayed into areas of legality (which we originally defined as out of the scope of the forecast), or practicality (what museums will need to do in order to survive). Quite often these thoughts intertwined and it was hard to tease out if the author thought an issue was legal, ethical, practical or just very important.

One emergent issue that took me by surprise: the ethics of museums holding far more collections than they can display at any given time.  Concerns about this practice seemed to be driven by a number of factors:

  • growing commitment to sustainability (what energy-resources should museums devote to collections in storage?)
  • a sneaky suspicion that a lot of stuff in museums collections don’t belong there and need a good culling
  • unease with the paradigm of perpetual growth (in size, in attendance, in collections)
  • anxiety that, in a fiscally bleak future, museums simply won’t be able to afford to maintain all the collections they have now

But some comments were clearly about ethics, reflecting a feeling that museum collections are public goods that ought to be accessible on a regular basis in some way, shape or form, not just once in a great while as the exhibit schedule allows. The corollary being that keeping large amounts of collections in “dead” storage is unethical (not just wasteful, impractical or unaffordable). Huh—I’ve never heard that sentiment expressed before.

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The fact that many comments related to this theme came in part from public participants in the survey (who may or may not work in museums) if anything heightened my concern. In my experience, the average “man on the street” doesn’t know that museum collections are like icebergs, the vast majority hidden from view, and are shocked to discover it so. And anyone who works with museum collections (curator, director, registrar) knows that one of the greatest sticking points in negotiating with donors is that they often expect their donated treasures will go on exhibit right now and forever. If people knew how much museums take care of that they never get to see, how many would appreciate our role in preserving this material for the future? And how many would feel such hoarding is a dicey use of the public subsidy they provide to us as nonprofit stewards of the collections?

A particularly interesting twist to this discussion is the role of digitization. Many forecasters shared their anxieties about the evolving dynamic of the virtual versus the real. If the majority of people who “visit” a museum do so on-line, what is the relative value of the physical site? How will the museum decide to partition resources between the virtual (which serves the greatest number) and the real (much of which isn’t accessible at any given time anyway?) If a museum digitizes an object, and the vast majority of people who ever “see” it access the virtual version, does this increase the temptation to deaccession some of the original material? Especially as (in this ever more interconnected world) any physical object can be tagged, tracked and catalogued in the cloud whether or not it resides in a museum. Do museums even need to own or house all the material they curate and interpret?

The purpose of the forecast is to tease out early indicators of change—envisioning how the standards we hold ourselves to, as a field, may shift in coming decades in response to changes in our environment (cultural, political, environmental, economic or technological).  And, of course, to start thinking about potential consequences of these changes. If the field ever decides that accessibility of collections (stored or not) is an ethical issue, how will museums respond?

So I’ve started looking for stories of how museums are coping with the dilemma of what to collect physically versus virtually; what and how much to put in storage; how to track and link to objects the museum doesn’t own, and how to manage public expectations regarding accessibility.

This morning a colleague introduced me to a site I find particularly interesting in this regard. The Vogel 50×50 Project grew out of the National Gallery of Art’s innovative response to the drivers of change discussed in this post. Faced with Dorothy and Herbert Vogel’s desire that their collection of contemporary art be accessible to the public (and the museum’s own limitations on storage), the project distributed the couple’s collection between sites in all fifty U.S. states, drawing on the Vogel’s intimate knowledge of which museum collections might be enhanced by specific works. While the art is physically distributed, however, intellectually the collection is united via the Web. A virtual museum, as it were, housing all the works and making them accessible to all.

This is one example in my small collections of stories that shed light on the future of what I call the Distributed Museum—museums that function in many physical places (via mobile, pop-up or branch extensions), and museums that “collect,” curate and interpret material that doesn’t reside in the museum itself. Can you add more to my stock? Please send descriptions and links to me at

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