Does your museum conduct research?
The third rule of the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums reminds us that “museums hold primary evidence for establishing and furthering knowledge”. It is our duty to ensure that the collections are researched and looked after. Also, the collections and the information contained in them should be accessible to everyone.
The Code takes a stand on the acquisition, analysis and respectful handling of materials. It ponders the personnel’s rights to the results of the research and urges people to share their expertise and respect the expertise of others. The Code also encourages co-operation with other institutions collecting cultural heritage.
Like many other things, research is closely linked with the collection management policy of museums. The ICOM Code of Ethics demands that the value of collections as research material is clearly identified in the collection management policy of museums. The collection management policy must also make clear that it is based on the museum’s stated mission. The document should not depend on trends that are popular in the museum world at each time.
How is this realised in your museum?
In the 2010s, an increasingly central role is played by visions and goals specified by museums in co-operation with other communities. However, many museum researchers are still individualists whose interests are guided by their own ideas more than the employer’s strategies. How far away from the museum’s stated mission can the research topics actually diverge? Where is the line between an employee’s rights and obligations? How long can a researcher sit on material for some eventual, possible research use?
Whose truths and stories do the museum collections intend to highlight and corroborate? Can collections and collection research be used to challenge predominant truths and power relationships? Do we dare? What about changing truths? Scientific information is accumulating and self-correcting by nature. Can we identify today’s essential information and share it with others? Does funding influence the selection of research subjects? On what principles do we publish material in Finna, the shared search service of Finnish cultural memory organisations?
Research conducted at a museum should be linked with the overall collections and collection management policy of the museum, if we want to spend our resources sensibly and, therefore, maybe also ethically. Do we always check the background of new material acquired carefully enough? How will the information we collect be conveyed to the next generation of museum professionals? Are we collecting information for ourselves or serving the accumulation of overall cultural heritage? Ethical acquisition results in high-quality collections whose acquisition principles will also be understandable to those who will continue our work. I think that this is linked with modern documentation in particular but, naturally, all other acquisition as well.
The ICOM Code of Ethics does not mention research policy among the documents necessary for a museum. I do not know if every museum needs one – each can consider it individually. However, it is probably clear that all museums must think about what research means for them, since very few museums have resources for research based on purely scientific questions. Nevertheless, a Finnish museum professional’s education includes an understanding of the various stages of the academic research process. It would be useful to specify to both oneself and others the parts of the process in which the research work of one’s own museum is positioned. Producing information and opening it for an audience, also an academic audience, is an important part of both the research process and museum work. Co-operation with academic institutions also increases mutual understanding of the cultural heritage, and museums need not perform all the work themselves. For an example, you can look at Espoo City Museum’s recently published research and publication policy (in Finnish).
Member of the Board of the Finnish National Committee of ICOMHead of Research, Helsinki City Museum