"Museum Collection Ethics"

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Steven Miller. Museum Collection Ethics:  Acquisition, Stewardship, and Interpretation. Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield, 2020. Paperback, 203p, $32.00 (978-1-5381-3520-4).

Overall, Steven Miller’s Museum Collection Ethics offers a good primer on ethical collection management. Miller says this is the only book on museum ethics that focuses specifically on collections (although other books on museum ethics more generally do cover some of the same ground). Within his chosen topic, his scope is fairly wide, encompassing acquisitions and deaccessioning, storage and preservation, display, and interpretation.

With almost 50 years in the museum field, Miller brings much valuable experience to bear on his topic. Per the biography on the back of the book, “he has served as a curator, administrator, director, trustee, writer, [and] consultant” as well as teaching museum studies at the graduate level at Seton Hall University. He is also affiliated with the AAM’s Museum Accreditation Program, so he has personally dealt with varied collections ethics issues from all angles. In the book, Miller illustrates his points with examples from his long career at six different museums, including the Museum of the City of New York. There is no doubt that he knows whereof he speaks.

A strength of the book is the number of illustrative examples provided from museums of varying types and missions, including several from museums other than those where Miller himself worked. This makes the concepts described in the book relevant to a wide audience; board members and staff from art museums, natural history museums, historic houses, university museums, and more will all find something applicable to them. The plentiful examples are helpful in illuminating the more abstract principles Miller discusses.

Miller wisely starts the book by discussing the fundamental mission of museums:  holding objects in the public trust in perpetuity. This principle - that museums are “object-centered” (1) and exist for the public good - underlies all ethical decisions that museum staff members and trustees make. It is also helpful that he outlines the role and expectations of museum trustees early on (in chapter 2). Trustees are ultimately responsible for defining and ensuring accountability regarding ethical standards. Miller also addresses (in multiple places) the idea that the public sees museums as trustworthy, and museums need to live up to that expectation.

From this philosophical beginning, Miller moves on to discuss the application of these principles in day-to-day collections work. Subsequent chapters more or less follow the steps in the collections management lifecycle:  collecting and acquisitions, stewardship and access, conservation, and exhibition. Some chapters do seem to overlap a bit; for example, chapter 5 on Museum Collecting Methods and chapter 6 on Acquisition Ethics cover some of the same ground. The section in chapter 11 on deaccessioning is one of the most useful. This is an area of many past missteps and misunderstandings in the museum world, so it is helpful that Miller lays out a clear list of acceptable—and specious—arguments for deaccessioning (119), tying this discussion back to his initial point about the public trust mission of museums.

Miller raises awareness for readers by addressing aspects of collections management that some may not realize have ethical implications. For example, he says that it is unethical not to catalog a collection (25), and unethical to acquire objects and not make them available for use (26). Similarly, he discusses preservation and conservation as ethical issues. Again, this all hearkens back to his initial discussion of a museum’s mission to be a good steward, in perpetuity, of all objects it acquires. This principle informs everything that happens to an object in a museum’s care.

The book includes several helpful features beyond just the text of each chapter. One particular strength of the book is a set of “Ethics in Action” scenarios posed at the end of each chapter. These short case studies and discussion questions provide excellent food for thought, with no easy answers. For example, Miller offers this scenario at the end of chapter 8, Collections Stewardship and Access:  “The mayor of the town your museum is in has requested art for his office from the museum’s permanent, accessioned collection. How should the museum respond to this, and what ethical issues might arise?” (89) The questions inspired me to think back on previous experiences working in various museums and re-examine them through the lens of museum collection ethics. Miller’s scenarios would be great to use in a museum studies class, in a board or staff training, or for on-the-job development for a museum collections professional.

The book’s supplementary material also includes eight appendices with the full text of many useful documents, such as A Code of Ethics for Curators from the AAM Curators Committee and a Statement on Human Remains from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Museum professionals can use these documents for reference or as models for creating their own policies. The book also includes a bibliography as well as footnotes at the end of each chapter. Though Miller doesn’t directly cite many sources within the text, relying more on his own knowledge and experience to make his points, he does point the reader to other valuable sources of information. He also cites and recommends many professional organizations in the field, including the American Institute for Conservation, the American Association for State and Local History, and the Association of Art Museum Directors.

The only downside to the book is a fair amount of repetition within it. As one example, the same quote is used in the text of chapter 5 and as the header of chapter 6 just four pages later. Topics such as the authenticity or lack thereof in historic house museums, the authority of curators, and issues raised by staff members’ personal collecting are all repeated in more than one chapter, sometimes with exactly the same examples. Each chapter also includes introductory and summary paragraphs; these seem unnecessary, since the chapters are brief. Eliminating the repetition and summary material would have left more room to elaborate on some important ethical issues that don’t get a deep discussion (for example, NAGPRA and decolonizing interpretation in exhibits). There are also multiple typos throughout the book which detract from the author’s points. Hopefully these might be corrected in the next edition.

Despite these few limitations, the book as a whole is a useful addition to the literature on museum ethics. Because this is a relatively short book that covers a lot of ground, this might best be used as a reference book or introductory text in a museum studies course, to be supplemented by other readings on the topic. As a primer, it does offer a useful overview of many important ethical questions that museum professionals should not only be aware of, but live by.

— Martha A. Tanner, Nebraska Wesleyan University