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.
Secretary General, Finnish Museums Association