David Fleming of the Museums Association answers questions on ethics
The Museums Association is currently running a consultation as input to updating its Code of Ethics. We recently contacted David Fleming, who is Chair of Ethics at the MA, and he kindly agreed to give us an insight into current thinking by answering a few questions.
David Fleming said “The issue of human remains is a key part of museum ethics. At the moment, as the current (and fairly new) Chair of Ethics at the MA, I am thinking about how the museum profession’s Code of Ethics relates to public opinion. We have to strike a balance between showing leadership (so we don’t all just end up doing whatever is flavour of the month, or responding to lobbying) and keeping in step with what opinions are out there. Most people don’t think about the ethics of human remains, but some of us need to, on behalf of everyone else. Of course, it’s an especially tricky issue!”
We asked the following questions:
- What is the role of the MA with regard to ethics within UK museums i.e. how much influence does the MA have in your opinion?
- Is the MA aware of how many museums having policies for ‘human remains’?
- What is promoting a new look at ethics within the MA?
- How might the MA include all perspectives and interested parties in creating a new ethical approach?
- What is the MA’s attitude towards the DCMS Guidance for the Treatment of Human Remains (2004), and would the MA be interested in working towards a new Guidance? How might that best be approached and achieved?
- Is there any case for keeping human remains in museums?
There are his answers:
- “The MA is the guardian and arbiter of museum ethical matters in the UK, and is very influential around the world. If a museum authority falls foul of the MA’s Code of Ethics then it will be in trouble with the press, and with funding bodies such as Arts Council England. Recently Northampton Council was declared by the MA’s Ethics Committee to have behaved unethically, and because of this the Council lost Accredited status with ACE, which resulted in its not being eligible for some funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund for which it applied; and there may well be further consequences for the Council.
- Don’t know. I would think big museums have explicit policies.
- Changing times and pressures, and a growing feeling that the present Code is very good for object care but is perhaps less useful for other ethical issues eg responsibilities to the public. Also, the MA Board wants to see the Code aligned with Museums Change Lives, the MA’s current policy initiative. Personally, I would worry if the Code began to look out of step with public opinion. We must beware a group of professionals inventing a code of ethical behaviour that the public doesn’t support.
- The MA is undertaking widespread consultation and welcomes views from any interested party.
- Don’t know.
- There are people who would argue “yes”, and others who would argue against. I have been berated by people from a scientific background when arguing for repatriation of human remains, because to them, the scientific arguments in favour of studying human remains outweigh any ethical, cultural or moral considerations. Obviously this is a complex and contentious issue.”
HAD is preparing its own submission to the consultation, which closes on 13th February. You can contact us in the usual way to have your input to this. Watch this space!