Carol Scott

Thinking about museums and controversy

Carol Scott - Sunday, November 01, 2015

In a world where positions are becoming more polarised, museums can expect to be on the receiving end of controversy at some time or other. I recently gave a paper at the ICOM Marketing and Public Relations conference held this year in Yerevan, Armenia from the 24th-28th October on the subject of Museums and Controversy and I would like to share the thoughts from that paper with you in a series of blog posts. This first one explores the potential sources of controversy in museums:

Collections: We find controversy in issues associated with our collections. One major source of contention is perceptions about the rightful ownership of objects with an increasing focus on repatriation. There are other areas. In these challenging economic times, some museums have considered ‘de-accessioning’ objects to manage escalating operating costs or to purchase new works- a move often accompanied by outcry and dismay from the public and other professionals. And the provenance of objects acquired by museums and galleries, often in good faith, has been the subject of more intense public scrutiny in recent years.

Inclusions and exclusions are a contested area. Who is included? Whose voice is heard? There has been controversy over the exclusions of women, migrant groups, indigenous cultures and different expressions of sexuality. Inclusion has not, in itself, eliminated controversy because conflict can then arise over representation of difference.

Standards, ethics and mores: Controversy is also played out through questions of what is admissible according to standards, ethics and mores. The exhibition of human remains is a contested area, sexuality in its myriad forms can provoke dispute- and art, with its capacity to bring with it ‘the shock of the new’, still contains the power to deeply divide public opinion.

Important collective narratives can be a source of discord. There are divergent views on how we represent war from lionising heroism and nationalism to deploring the inhumanity of war, the huge social cost to generations and the targeting of specific groups through holocausts and genocides. The contention around national narratives has witnessed overt intervention from at least one government that did not subscribe to the notion of plurality and diversity in interpreting the national story.   The origins of the world and its species are currently a highly polarised debate between creationists and scientists. 

Emerging or unresolved social issues which come accompanied by divergent views and value positions are often sources of controversy. Whether these are perceived as being linked in some way to larger geo-political conflicts, reflect deep divisions within a society or explore issues around which there are contested positions, museums can find themselves in the centre of a maelstrom.

Funding: As public investment decreases, museums are required to become more entrepreneurial and to seek greater input from sponsors, donors and foundations. What are the ethical issues involved in partnering with outside funders? Museum ethics policies are beginning to reflect the situation. The Canadian Museum Association’s ethics guidelines state clearly that any sponsorship or partnership with an external partner must not compromise the institutional mandate or the museum’s public trust responsibilities.  In the same spirit, the UK Museums Association’s draft code of ethics maintains that financial support from commercial organisations and other outside sources is acceptable provided that it does not compromise the integrity of the museum.

These six areas begin to ‘map’ the situations where controversy may occur. In the next blog, I discuss the subject of establishing guidelines to manage controversy.


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