Book review by Laura Roberts, Roberts Consulting

This is a book that the museum field has been waiting for since the American Alliance (then Association) of Museums undertook revision of the Code of Ethics for Museums in 1991. The tensions and ambiguities underlying that code just won’t go away, as evidenced by the interest in the “ethics smack down” Ms. Yerkovich organized at the 2013 AAM annual meeting. More recently, she chaired the task force that attempted to define “direct care” more closely: an effort that resulted in an important white paper. We cringe over front-page stories about deaccessioning on the part of cash-strapped museums. Unfortunately, the discussion of museum ethics generally begins and ends with deaccessioning.

The expectation that every museum develop its own code of ethics as one of the five core documents on the “Continuum of Excellence”  has put new focus on the need for a strong ethics policy. Unfortunately, when faced with the task of understanding ethical practice and developing an institutional code, too many museums find themselves taking a defensive position, assuming that since the board and staff are honorable people who would never act unethically, there is not need to have a serious, difficult discussion of all the issues. This book can go a long way towards generating productive dialogues about ethical practice. It should be required reading for anyone who teaches museum studies, works with boards of directors, or is responsible for writing a museum’s code of ethics.

Sally Yerkovich is the director of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University and has taught ethics at a number of museum graduate programs in greater New York. So there is no question that she is the right person to write this guide. I have had the pleasure of watching her dissect ethical questions in the classroom, teasing out what are really ethical rather than either legal or managerial challenges, as she does in chapter two. With each set of questions and cases, I learn a little more and I suspect rereading this book with others – board members, colleagues or students – will produce similar insights. (Full disclosure: among those she thanks in the acknowledgements are many of my former students and colleagues at Bank Street College of Education.)

Each chapter covers a cluster of ethical questions: governance, collecting, conservation, fundraising, controversy, etc. Chapters include many examples of the challenges specific museums have faced and what they’ve done in response. The standards cited always include the International Council of Museums Code of Ethics as well as United States guidelines, which is a welcome broadening of perspective.

The second section of every chapter (Ethics in Action) is a series of hypothetical (and a few real) ethical quandaries. Reading them will produce more than a few chuckles and sighs of relief that the reader’s museum’s issues aren’t that bad. They are short but to the point and excellent fodder for classroom or boardroom discussion. They are set in a range of museums, of different sizes and disciplines. A busy reader might be tempted to skim them and go onto the next chapter but playing out the issues in an increasingly complicated situation helps the reader develop a deeper understanding of the ethical principles. And just when you think you’ve worked it out, Yerkovich shifts the question slightly(“Would your answer be different if…” and makes you start over.

Each chapter ends with “Final Thoughts.” It would be a mistake to skip these, which are often the most pointed and insightful pieces of advice and counsel. While putting them before the case studies might give away too much, it would be unfortunate if readers missed these. If you are looking for tangible guidance and advice, read these summaries carefully.

The chapter on Restitution, Repatriation or Retention? The Ethics of Cultural Heritage is particularly strong, covering all of the nuances of “cultural heritage.” Until you have to write or teach about the topic, it can be challenging to link NAGPRA, Nazi-era appropriated art, and archeological and ancient artifacts, but they do, in fact, present similar ethical issues. Some board members may feel comfortable limiting our actions in response to contested claims to what is legally required. But others worry that the law fails to capture all of the cultural, social and historical dimensions of “ownership,” and this chapter opens up those related issues in an accessible way.

Another similarly rich chapter is on fundraising and income-producing activities. The case studies include the ethical issues raised by Bill and Camille Cosby’s loan of artwork to  the National Museum of Africa Art. Aside from the questions about accusations made about Cosby’s conduct towards women, Yerkovich surfaces questions of exhibiting art work in private collections that is not a promised gift to the exhibiting museum. Having had a conversation with a museum trustee about the prospect of an exhibition raising the value of work on loan the very day I wrote this review, I can attest that this book is, in fact, relevant and provocative.

The chapter on controversy and censorship is unfortunately brief, with only three case studies, all from art museums. The “final thoughts” reference efforts by history museums to prepare staff to deal with controversy by engaging in facilitated dialogue about difficult issues raised in exhibitions. The chapter has no reference; perhaps the author is referencing the important work by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, which is, in fact, a great resource.

This book is disappointing in one way: the topics and issues are generally limited to museum-specific ethical questions. When it does veer into more general nonprofit topics, like the ethics of governance, it is extremely useful and interesting. I would have welcomed a chapter that briefly looked at the ethical dilemmas faced by all nonprofit organizations, such as how and where funds are invested, whether interns are paid, and environmentally sustainable practices. My fear is that a board or staff committee might use the table of contents as a checklist for developing the museum’s code of ethics and miss these other important dimensions of ethical stewardship. I would augment this book with some sample ethical statements for nonprofits and other resources (such as this essay in the Stanford Social Innovation Review) to ensure a comprehensive ethical code.