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

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