maanantai 20. maaliskuuta 2017

Rule 8: Museums operate in a professional manner

Do they?

Museums do not operate or do anything at all! No operations or activities are ever performed by an organisation but by people, together or alone. Certainly, museum professionals do their job and get their pay from the museum or its owner, such as the municipality, city, state or foundation, but the most essential question is who they are ultimately working for – and how? Indeed, the principle of the eighth rule of the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums does not talk about museums but members of the museum profession, and goes on to list 16 prohibitions in its 18 subsections. Looking at these, I am reminded of the ten strict commandments given to Moses by God in the Old Testament, seven of which are based on the explicit prohibition “Thou shalt not”. The fifth commandment, however, includes a promise: “Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” In my understanding, what you were originally meant to honour in order to prosper were not your parents or other authorities but something that was vital back then: the knowledge and skills of your parents and community – culture. The eighth rule of the Code, by contrast, does not include a single promise. Why not?

In the eighth rule, professional conduct is seen as a list of the employee’s obligations and responsibilities towards the employer – the museum – but not vice versa. They must not do this, they must follow this and avoid that, etc. Many of the prohibitions and recommendations are self-evident to Finnish employees. This prohibitionary approach to the profession reminds me of an old Finnish proverb about climbing a tree. If you want to do it in the most difficult way possible, do it with your bottom first. There is also another problem in the prohibitions. When Hannu-Tapani Klami, a late Finnish Professor of Law, commented on the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums, he noted that many of their prohibitions do not match Finnish legislation. The last sentence of the principle of the eighth rule goes like this: “Every opportunity should be used to inform and educate the public about the aims, purposes, and aspirations of the profession to develop a better public understanding of the contributions of museums to society.” There is something wrong here, upside down. Is the public there for the museum? Is the goal of museum work to make the museum appear good to the public? Or are the goals elsewhere altogether? If they are, like I assume, could these goals be emphasised to both members of the museum profession and society instead of listing prohibitions?

What are professional skills in the context of museums and who has them? To simplify, I think these skills are possessed by all people who work at a museum and have familiarised themselves with the museum as a societal actor in general and with the field of their own museum in particular. These two factors are also mentioned in the Finnish Museums Decree as prerequisites for state subsidies. Professional skills in museums have hugely expanded in the past few years, and people have – speaking allegorically, in university terminology – received their education in completely different faculties and subjects. The only common denominator may be, as mentioned in the Museums Decree, museology (heritology), which familiarises one with the museum and cultural heritage processes. One question that is relevant today: In a professionally or non-professionally managed museum, can volunteers working without pay act as museum professionals? I think they can, provided that they, too, have familiarised themselves with the museum as a societal actor in general and with the field of their own museum in particular.

The current ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums was approved in 2004. It is an updated version of the Code adopted in 1986. All in all, the Code seems to be out of date in many aspects in today’s quickly changing world. Therefore, it should be revamped urgently. For an international organisation whose rules should apply to all countries and cultures, the challenge is tough and the road is long. Should we look elsewhere for a solution?

Janne Vilkuna
Professor of Museology at the University of Jyväskylä and
Director of the Jyväskylä University Museum

maanantai 13. maaliskuuta 2017

Rule 7: Museums operate in a legal manner

It feels slightly odd that museums should separately mention in their Code of Ethics that they operate in a legal manner. This should go without saying or writing. However, the news published in 2016 about companies benefiting from the Panama tax haven show very bluntly that the law can be read in many ways. In Finland, the party that has so far seemed the worst perpetrator in this is Nordea Bank. Their entire management has had to convince people that the bank follows the law – albeit not as solemnly as museums do through the seventh rule of the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums According to the Code, “museums must conform fully to international, regional, national and local legislation and treaty obligations”.

Presumably, from the perspective of legal experts, Nordea has not broken the law. Whether it has acted justly is another question. Apparently, the thinking of many legally trained people might be described in the words of Finnish author Väinö Linna – in Linna’s novel Under the North Star, crofter Otto Kivivuori described the legal studies of his son Janne, saying that he was not studying the law in order to be able to follow it but to circumvent it.

Not everyone thinks that using one’s perfect legal knowledge to find loopholes is just. However, complete justice is even more unlikely than complete legality. This is because justice is more about individual feeling than knowledge. Tax evasion is a good example of this. Few people consider it just that wealthy people are evading taxes with the help of Panama. Presumably, equally few people consider it unjust that Finns travel in hordes to Estonia to buy liquor, even though this is also a question of tax evasion.

Following the law from the viewpoint of general justice seems to be highly important in issues represented by organisations and their employees. It is clear that, from the viewpoint of justice, museums and their employees are treated differently than other people in questions relating to the preservation and representation of cultural heritage. This can be tested with a little mental exercise: if a public work of art was vandalised or destroyed by an art museum employee or a regular hooligan, how would it be reported in the news? In the first case, the background of the vandal would probably be mentioned in the headlines, and it would also be likely to be the key factor that made the event newsworthy.

I claim that no museum conforms to ICOM’s ethical rule about operating in a legal manner. A museum’s operations are governed by a number of laws relating to administration, finances and actual museum work, and nobody knows the full content of these laws and, therefore, can fully comply with them. At the national and international level, the laws broken most often are undoubtedly copyright and personal data laws, whose content is ambiguous. Following these laws fully would destroy the foundation of all collection work. However, this does not mean that we should stop following the laws or, in a tight spot, plead ignorance or complain about their complexity. We must know the laws applying to our activities better and be able to use them to assess the legality of our activities and the risks involved in our interpretations of them.

Where legality is concerned, one peculiarity of Finnish museum operations is the fact that most museums do not follow – and do not need to follow – the Finnish Museums Act. Unlike the name suggests, this act does not specify anything about museums or the legality of their operations. It stipulates how a museum can start receiving state subsidies and keep receiving them. Of all Finnish museums, less than 20% are currently receiving state subsidies. There is a need to expand the content of the Museums Act. As regards the development of the field, it would be good if the Museums Act could also include other laws linked with museum operations, the first of which that spring to mind are the Antiquities Act and the Act on the Protection of Buildings. The role of these as the cornerstones of the legal and societal operation of museums could be strengthened.

In my opinion, the rule “Museums operate in a legal manner” is a problematic one among those in the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums, particularly as regards its current content. Following the law cannot be an ethical choice as such; it should be self-evident. By contrast, choosing not to follow the law may be an ethical choice in certain situations. Such ethical choices can be made by environmental movements, for example. If the entire rule is not omitted to make room for some value-based rule, the content should be modified to say something about how museums must promote justice, particularly from the perspective of their key task and the related questions.  If this feels like too big a step, let’s at least omit the word ‘fully’ from the current definition. Let’s not make things too difficult by striving for perfection, even in this matter.

Kimmo Levä
Secretary General, Finnish Museums Association

maanantai 6. maaliskuuta 2017

Rule 6: Museums work in close collaboration with the communities from which their collections originate

Do not always believe the community

An old man was moved to tears while visiting the Finnish Lenin Museum. Established in 1946 in Tampere, Finland, the museum was still displaying its legendary permanent exhibition, which highlighted the Bolshevist leader’s feats of strength. The man started talking reverently to the guide about Father Stalin. What are you supposed to answer in such a situation? Could you just try to wriggle out of the awkward conversation, should you challenge the old man with the help of historical research, or should you pretend to agree with him, because the customer is always right, as they say?

The sixth rule of the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums does not sound very nice from the guide’s perspective. According to the Code, museum collections reflect the cultural heritage of their community, they may include strong affinities with political identity, and the original owner of the collections must not be exploited. The collections of the Lenin Museum were donated by Finland’s eastern neighbour, and the museum was founded by local communists soon after World War II. Does this heritage oblige the museum to retain respect for the creator of the collections, the mighty Soviet Union and, at the same time, the remains of the community that established the museum?

Surprisingly many rules in the ICOM Code of Ethics seem to have been created for the needs of a postcolonial museum world. They have reined in the old museums of the colonial powers and lightened the white man’s burden: lurking in the background is a shame about innocent aboriginal peoples that have been exploited, robbed and racialised by the imperialist museum system. While this is a genuine concern, it is a poor match to the ethical problems of Finnish museums, for example. We Finns should rather think about how the overly sensitive, prim touch of today’s museums often leaves the sore points of the past untouched. In its present form, the Code mainly warns us against hurting anyone and encourages us to respect communities according to their wishes or conditions.

In addition to underlining dignity, the Code luckily states that museums should also promote human well-being, social development, tolerance, and respect by advocating multisocial, multicultural and multilingual expression. As a matter of fact, these higher values, which are based on the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, should be emphasised instead of the naive talk about communities. If a museum is using its collections to cover up past wrongdoings, it is acting unethically – not even the creator of the collections should be allowed to evade the judgement of history. Museums must also dare to look at their own roots.

In order to gain ethical confidence for its reformation, the Lenin Museum in Tampere sought help from a higher power – the public. A small exhibition was put up for this purpose, where the visitors could take a stand, make suggestions and vote on the kinds of things that the new museum should address. The wish list was topped by Soviet humour and daily life, the KGB, labour camps and dissidents. The former permanent exhibition did not say a thing about these. Naturally, the old collections cannot provide all this, but they can be supplemented, and new meanings can be assigned to the key works.

When preliminary information about the new content of the Lenin museum started spreading, it seems that the museum unfortunately lost a few of its old friends. Those still attracted to Soviet communism (for they do exist) are afraid of seeing a sacrilege and might have similar feelings as the aboriginal peoples unethically objectified by ethnographic museums. On the ethical scales, however, the memory of the Soviet system’s victims weighs more today than admirers of the system. For surely museums cannot just stay tactfully silent if innocent people have been killed, whether in Stalin’s meat grinder or a cannibal tribe’s cooking pot?

Kalle Kallio
Museum Director, Finnish Labour Museum Werstas (Werstas opened the revamped Lenin Museum in Tampere on 17 June 2016)