By Nick Poole, Collections Trust CEO
Today saw the AHRC-funded Museum Ethics Network meet for the second time to continue our discussions about the need for new approaches to museum ethics for the 21st Century.
Our venue was the Manchester Museum, itself something of a poster-child for rewriting the social contract between the museum and its users. Our theme for the day was 'Transparency' and its connection to museum ethics.
Now, I should say from the outset that there are some parts of today's discussions which I can't blog because they contained material of a sensitive nature. The irony of having to redact a session on Transparency was lost on none of us, but it is perhaps telling that people felt that it was more important to preserve the ability of participants to speak openly about their experiences than to keep a complete record of proceedings!
In fact, 'Shades of Grey' might well have been the subtitle of the whole day. It is a great pleasure and privilege to have been able to share the thrust and parry of discourse with some fascinating people, but ultimately we left with more questions than we had brought with us to Manchester this morning.
I should explain a little about the background to the Museum Ethics workshops. They are the brainchild of Jocelyn Dodd and Janet Marstine at the University of Leicester, and their aim is to bring together some of the museum sector's more vocal public intellectuals (and no, I have no idea why I have been invited) to address the question of whether the changing role and nature of museums betokens a fundamental shift in the ethics underlying our practice.
Transparency itself is not a simple or even well-defined concept. It is more active and political than 'open' and 'accountable', but seems to speak to a moral obligation of which openness and accountability are a part. It sounds like a good thing, until you realise that most of the real world depends on degrees of opacity. It can be understood as a foundational, inalienable principle (an intrinsic good) and as a relative quality (an instrumental outcome). Should museums be transparent? And what would it mean if they were?
We began by trying to nail a working definition of the qualities of Transparency. We spoke of the principle of the equitable sharing of knowledge, and of the idea of redressing imbalances of power. I have always been interested in the way that information asymmetry confers economic and political power (insurance companies have a good deal more information in their actuarial tables than you do when it comes to calculating relative degrees of risk). Transparency, it seems, is a way of restoring balance, and in the process of redressing social inequality.
Transparency, it seems generally to be acknowledged, is a Good Thing. We discussed how in much contemporary discourse 'open = good' and 'closed = bad'. This is a discussion which echos many recent conversations about the principles of open data, open source and open licensing, which may or may not be good, depending on what it is you are trying to achieve.
And yet, as with so many of these things, when you scratch the surface, you quickly find that apparent certainties quickly dissolve.
The first thing is that, while I think most museums aspire to transparency, and much museological practice is designed to support accountable objectivity, there is no such thing as a politically neutral museum. If the museum is a pane of glass through which culture is viewed, that glass has a refractive index which subtly skews the perception of the objects on the other side.
It was interesting to talk about the idea that if neutrality of presentation and interpretation is not possible, then perhaps transparency for museums means being honest about our refractive index - the particular prism through which our collections have come together and by which they have been interpreted.
I spoke about the idea that museums, perhaps uniquely, are places within which conflicting narratives can be held in orbit around each other. I used the example of the debate about human remains, which often hinges on the difference between the body as physical material and the body as vessel of the immaterial soul, between the Western rationalist canon and other, more metaphysical cultural practices. A museum can hold up both world-views for scrutiny and allow its audience to consider them side-by-side. It is when the museum takes a stand, comes down on one side of the fence or the other, that it becomes propagandist.
The risk of cultural propaganda is ever-present in museums, and all the more acute for the fact that people trust what we say. More, I think, than almost any other walk of life (except, perhaps, in schools), the idea of a 'museum' confers authority, trust and validity. To allow this to be harnessed to propagandist agendas, either overtly or through inaction, is to abuse of the foundation of public trust.
We walk a tightrope in museums between authority and ambiguity - we feel the need to appear authoritative, precisely because of the trust society places in us, but we live every day not only with ambiguity, but with an increasing awareness of how little factual certainty there is in the world. Teachers have had to come to terms with this for decades - you know that the world is not organised neatly into equations and predictable structures, but you have to create an infrastructure of apparent certainty in order for people to pass exams and function in society. It is always interesting how much of a degree involves dismantling the childish certainties of your school-aged learning.
We talked about the momentum to achieve openness by digitising cultural heritage and making it available online, but this, too is problematic. Digitisation is essentially Collecting 2.0 - it is a re-run of the great acquisitive period in the history of museums. And in the same way that the acquisition of physical collections was immensely politically-charged, digitisation runs the risk of reinforcing exactly the same cultural bias that went before. Put it this way, if you have sufficient funds to digitise 5-10% of your collections, what do you choose? What are your criteria, how open are they and how can you be certain that they reflect the real needs of audiences without undue influence from your own world-view?
This seems to be a particularly nit-picking point, and I freely confess that a day engaged in this kind of discussion about museums is a tremendous luxury, but if it is true that in future more of our audiences will meet us for the first time online than off, then the criteria through which we filter our collections for digitisation will come to define us and our relevance - already under question as they are.
written by Ryan Donahue, March 01, 2012
written by Mar Dixon, March 01, 2012
written by Ryan Donahue, March 01, 2012