Public Trust at Your Local Museum

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The ethic guidelines established by the Canadian Museum Association (CMA) maintain that museums which operate in the public trust have two main responsibilities to the public: stewardship and public service.  Stewardship refers to the need for museums to acquire and preserve valuable heritage, as a means of protecting this heritage for the general public.  The public service component refers to the role which museums should play in education and public engagement.  The CMA suggests that museums have a responsibility to understand their collections, interpret the past, and to be facilitators of education. The CMA is not alone in the belief that museums have ethical obligations to the general public.  The International Council of Museums (ICOM) code of ethics and the code of ethics and best practices established by the American Association of Museums (AAM) also highlight the obligations of museums to the general public.

However, these ethical codes are not all encompassing.  The definition of ‘museum’ has been debated and redefined by heritage professionals and organizations for years.  The difficulty with defining museums is the diversity of collections, mandates, and objectives of heritage institutions. This diversity makes an ethical code which is suited such a wide range of heritage intuitions is nearly impossible to create and even harder to enforce.   Corporate museums and individually owned for profit museums are drastically different from not-for-profit accredited museums.  The diversity in heritage institutions is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something which the general public needs to be aware of when donating to a museum.

Accredited, not-for-profit museums with proper governing policies have established guidelines as to what material they will accept into their collection, they have preservation standards, and responsible deaccesioning policies.  In many unaccredited or privately owned museums these policies are nonexistent.  That being said, there are exceptions out there and is possible to find a privately owned museum with responsible policies.

Why is it important to know about the collection policy of your local museum? Have you ever considered donating material to a museum? Knowing what type of collection policy your local museum has can help you understand what may happen to your donation in years to come.  Recently, the entire Robert Stuart Aeronautical Collection held by a ‘museum’ in Oshawa, ON was put up for sale online.  It is being claimed that most the collection was given to the museum, making it the museum’s property, and that the museum operators have the right to do what they please with the artifacts.  Similar instances of the sale of museum collections for profit can be seen here and here.

Deacessioning is not a bad thing, and it occasionally needs to occur for the sake of preservation and collection development. But, the sale of an entire museum collection on eBay goes beyond deaccessioning and draws into question the matter of public trust.  There are currently no real legal repercussions for intuitions which do not follow accepted public stewardship guidelines.  As such it is imperative that the general public understand the basic museum polices, and the difference between a good accredited museum and a personal collection which has the potential to be sold off at the whim of a collector.  Knowing what type of museum you are donating heritage material to is a key part of ensuring the preservation and longevity of our material culture.

Krista McCracken is a public history consultant and is currently working with Knowledge Ontario as a Digitization Facilitator.

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