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Book Review: A Practical Guide to Museum Ethics

by Adrienne McGraw on

This review originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of History News.

A Practical Guide to Museum Ethics
By Sally Yerkovich
(Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016)

At first glance, A Practical Guide to Museum Ethics may seem like a book that would sit on your shelf to be consulted only occasionally. However, it is an important book to engage with actively and often whether you are an emerging or seasoned museum professional, board member, or volunteer. The Guide, by Sally Yerkovich, provides a framework to solve ethical challenges in our day-to-day museum life as well as in larger institutional dilemmas. It is equally informative for frontline staff as it is for directors and trustees. After all, it is up to each of us to manage our institutions in the most ethical manner possible, regardless of our position.

Yerkovich has pulled together four main professional codes of ethics that guide the museum field, including from the American Alliance of Museums, International Council of Museums, American Association for State and Local History, and Association of Art Museum Directors. The author has included each code in its entirety and in rereading them, I am reminded that how central the bond of public trust is to our work.

Ten chapters look at ways in which ethical challenges may brush up against mission, governance, leadership, fundraising, and collections management from acquisition and care through to deaccessioning. The chapter on restitution and repatriation is the longest and most complex chapter in the book, rightly so, and covers looted objects, Native American material culture, and NAGPRA. However, the subject of the repatriation of human remains might have been better served in its own chapter, thus helping to decolonize our thinking about human remains as simply another type of collection. Other chapters include dealing with controversy and censorship, and a final chapter addresses ethics surrounding access and diversity issues as related to museum visitors.

Each chapter begins with an overview of how ethical concerns are related to the main topic, and which sections of the codes of ethics are most pertinent. Yerkovich then offers several real-world or hypothetical scenarios, called “Ethics in Action,” to illustrate a variety of ethical dilemmas. The compact and lively scenarios are wide-ranging across museum function, type, and scale. The author notes that “correct solutions are not provided.” She instead invites the reader to think through various ways the scenarios could be resolved based on a museum’s mission and values, and the circumstances involved. At first, I felt unsatisfied by reading the unresolved scenarios, but as soon as I began chatting with my students and colleagues about some of the more intriguing cases, I realized what excellent tools they are. These scenarios could easily be used in a classroom setting, staff meeting, or board meeting to foster discussion and support training. Although, I struggled a bit with the preponderance of fictitious Anglo names and felt some of the scenarios perhaps unwittingly reinforce issues of privilege.

Each chapter concludes by reinforcing that adherence to codes of ethics is an active process and must be engaged in by all stakeholders. The problem-solving framework provided by Yerkovich is simple and straightforward and once introduced, should become part of any museum professional’s toolkit. Add A Practical Guide to Museum Ethics to your bookshelf soon!

Adrienne McGraw is Chair of the Museum Studies Program at John F Kennedy University in Berkeley, California. She holds an M.A. in Museum Studies and M.S. in Education and has more than twenty years of experience in museum education, exhibition development, and advocacy for environmental sustainability in museums. She can be reached at amcgraw@jfku.edu.

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