Cross-cultural ethical perspectives

We’ve been following a discussion on Linked-in around ethical perspectives. It started with a statement by Manus Brinkman:

bird specimen

Unethical specimens?

“During an ICOM-ASPAC meeting in Tokyo in December some participants launched the idea of an all Asian (ICOM) Code of Ethics for museums next to the existing ICOM Code of Ethics. Does that make sense?”

It’s been a lively discussion since. (See it here.) The basis appears to be, at least to some degree, that Asia has, as Brinkman puts it “a stronger sense of ‘group-awareness’ instead of focusing primarily on the rights (and obligations) of the individual.”

Aside from the obvious difficulties of having two Codes sitting side by side, presumably in different languages which might have different slants (think of the Treaty of Waitaingi all you New Zealanders out there!) it begs the question of whether, especially in a museum context, there are universal truths that can, and should, be applied to everybody across the board. As Olga Baird puts it “museum language – the language of original artefacts – is universal…”

If we were talking about zoos, it might, perhaps, be more straightfoward. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums has its code of ethics (here). Statements like “Members of WAZA will ensure that all animals in their care are treated with the utmost care and their welfare should be paramount all times.” are pretty indisputable. Human rights ethics are the same.

But not everything is as clear cut in the museum sector. For instance, heritage objects can sometimes fall into a grey area that defies (sorry) objectivity, leaving them open to differences of opinion among different disciplines (e.g. natural vs. cultural). Looking at the current Code from an admittedly Western perspective, it’s difficult to see where it strays from what could be considered ‘unversal truths’. The triennal meeting in Shanghai will provide a forum for many cross-cultural discussion, including this.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to publish more, as the topic develops.

For those interested in viewing the ICOM Code of Ethics, it can be viewed (here).

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4 thoughts on “Cross-cultural ethical perspectives

  1. I was brought up short by the Xenicus lyalli photo. It would be great if we could have a post on Stephens Island Wren, and the ethical issues it raises. That would help anchor the discussion for me. (For those outside NZ, X. lyalli was wiped out by 1) museum collectors, 2) a lighthouse-keeper’s cat, or 3) a wild population of feral cats, depending on whom you talk to.)

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