There are plenty of obligations, but what about resources?
I will delve into the first rule of the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums. This is how it goes: “Museums preserve, interpret and promote the natural and cultural inheritance of humanity.” The principle under the heading states that museums are responsible for the tangible and intangible natural and cultural heritage and requires that governing bodies and persons in charge protect and promote this heritage as well as the human, physical and financial resources made available for that purpose.
When you read further down, you get an idea of a non-commercial institution that relies on a sturdy foundation and acts consistently, persistently and professionally within the framework specified by society. The institutional position must be intact, and the same applies to the facilities in which the museum operates and cherishes and displays its collection. Ensuring sufficient funding is important, which the Code duly emphasises while also advising caution. Regardless of funding source, museums should maintain control of the content and integrity of their programmes, exhibitions and activities. The personnel must be professionals, of course.
Such high principles, don’t you think? On the other hand, all this is also essential, which shows in the fact that most of the same principles have been recorded in the Finnish Museums Act as prerequisites for state subsidies.
This first rule is probably not the one referenced most often when discussing the daily questions in museum ethics, but it is an important one to contemplate. As it is, the points listed in this rule should constitute the foundation on which successful museum work is built. Is this the case?
To begin with, my mind is filled with questions about obligations that the principle quoted at the beginning loads on to the backs of museums. In my opinion, these obligations are quite extensive. Are museums categorically responsible for all cultural heritage? Or should the responsibility be limited a little? After all, not all cultural heritage gets the attention of museums, even if it deserved it. Firstly, it is a question of choices. Somebody chooses what will be cherished as cultural heritage for future generations and, hopefully, for the benefit and joy of our generation as well. Secondly, we are faced with the reality of life. There are not enough resources to take care of everything. Therefore, I do not think that museums – or cultural memory organisations, if we expand the perspective a bit – can be said to be responsible for all cultural heritage; only that part of cultural heritage that we choose to cherish and that is possible to cherish. Someone must enable the museum processes. Someone must pay to keep the facilities intact, ensure that there are a sufficient number of skilled personnel and so forth.
The rule says that governing bodies and persons in charge should enable these things. Naturally, this is true. When we look high enough, the persons in charge can be found in Finnish politics and ministries, which make many of the decisions affecting our museum field. But a lot of the responsibility lies with the management of the organisations. In order to ensure sufficient resources for your operations, you must act yourself.
This takes us to another aspect of the first rule to which I want to draw your attention – the mention about the non-commercial nature of museums. The prerequisites of museums for enabling their operations may be undermined by fear of commercialism. I do not think commercialism is that bad; as a matter of fact, I think it is essential these days. Museums are competing for attention with other pastimes.
This competition for attention requires commercial thinking and expertise. I recently listened and marvelled at an American museum director’s account of their fund-raising efforts, which had resulted in huge sums of money, unbelievable from the Finnish perspective, from both sponsors and private donors. Although our rules and regulations by no means prohibit sponsorship, they exude an anti-commercial attitude that I do not consider very up-to-date. Could we somehow modify this attitude to make it easier for museums to operate in modern society, an environment often revolving around finances?
Of course, this may be considered nit-picking and people may think that the rule is sufficient in its current form, but I think it pays off at least to think about the obligations to ensure that no museum or museum worker is crushed under an impossible workload due to an excessive sense of duty. Or that the necessary resources are not attained for fear of commercialism.
To conclude slightly provocatively: should museums only feel a sense of duty for something for which someone is paying them? That someone could be the state or municipality but also some private party. Reaching the latter requires a bravely commercial touch, doesn’t it?
Chairperson of the Board of the Finnish National Committee of ICOM
Intendant, National Museum of Finland