Museums and Ethics: A Series of Questions

As part of our initiative to be more reflective on our role in upholding systems of oppression, we have compiled a list of questions from the Student Ambassadors and McMullen Museum staff addressing the intersection between museums and ethics. There is a lively debate over the ethics of museums and the pieces that they showcase, especially in the Western world, where many objects on display were stolen during periods of colonization. Additionally, museums often charge entry fees or offer membership privileges that limit access to art to only those who can afford it. Many museums participate in perpetuating racial and class divisions, but despite this, they also can combat them. The intersection of museums and ethics is a complicated topic that we do not have all the answers to; therefore, we hope to bring attention to this issue and spark conversation by gathering questions to reflect upon and consider as workers at the McMullen Museum. We encourage you to look at our questions below and join us in our reflection on the nuanced existence and operation of museums.

Questions: 

  1. How do countries that have colonized other countries deal with the return of artifacts or the politics of displaying art from the countries they colonized?
  2. What sort of representation do museums engage in (i.e., artists and the subject matter of works)? What is the value of this representation?
  3. Who are museums for? Is there a sort of elitism connected to museums? 
  4. Should museums display works of art that are problematic? 
  5. Is it ethical to have a fixed cost associated with entrance? (i.e., in London, you pay as much as you can, but in the U.S. can be upwards of $20 per person)
  6. How do museums decolonize their collecting, display, curatorial, and education practices?
  7. As public funding to museums decreases over time, how do museums balance the need to attract wealthy patrons with aims to make museum management more inclusive and equitable? 
  8. Does the mission and priorities of an academic museum like the McMullen Museum differ from public museums like the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston?
  9. Does the use of technology in exhibitions and programming encourage or hinder access?
  10. Should the McMullen Museum model itself as a temple for quiet reflection and reverence of art or a forum to discuss and debate what is displayed? Can it be both?
  11. Is spectacle inherent in museum exhibition practice? If so, does this compromise or hinder learning?
  12. Whose stories should museums tell? Whose values should they highlight? What objects deserve attention? And who decides?
  13. Do museums have a responsibility to enter the discourse on current affairs?
  14. Can museums be objective in their interpretation practices?
  15. What objects should be collected, and is it ever ethical to deaccession (remove from a collection to sell) objects?
Photo of the McMullen Museum of Art

Featured Image Credit: Tom Lobo-Brennan

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