Shanghai General Conference

Should museums display ivory and other material from threatened species?

As we’re gearing up for the ICOM General Conference in Shangai this Novemeber, it’s time to start thinking, again, about the activities of the Ethics Working Group, and how best to progress them.

It is a chance we have not had since the General Conference in Vienna in 2007 to discuss and brainstorm in person many of the issues our wide-spread group has been discussing remotely. For instance, we have been communicating about the sale of museum collections, display of human remains, display of biological material from threatened species, the long-term fate of historically important dioramas and taxidermy, and care of live animals within institutions.

How should live animals in museums be treated? Are museums the same as zoos?

These are being covered in our draft Code of Best Practice for Natural History Musesums, the development of which has turned out to be a lengthy process, involving many stakeholders. The draft has been improved by a diverse group of colleagues, including members of ICOM’s Ethics Committee, as well as various curatorial and research staff at different institutions.

One question that has come up is whether a code, as such, is actually required at all. Many museums already have an internal code of best practice, effective ethics commitees and are well-equipped to address issues as they arise. A few workers at these institutions have questions whether having an international code would be of benefit.

We feel that it is. First, while many larger museums don’t need additional capacity in this area, there are others, and not just small regional institutions, that do not deal effectively with ethical issues involving natural history objects. We know, because we’ve spoken to many of them, that there is a need, and that our document will be used and referred to.

Should fossils be considered geological specimens, or be subject to the same restrictions as biological matieral?

Second, and more importantly, it gives us, the Ethics Working Group, a common ground to use as a starting point to address individual ethical issues when they arise. If, long term, we end up mediating, arbitrating, or even simply giving support on individual issues, a solid, well-considered document is an absolute must. Getting together also provides us for updates on other initiatives, such as our upcoming book Intangible Natural Heritage, to be published with Routledge early next year.

Are their commonalities around the display of human remains?

However, the Shanghai conference will not only be an opportunity to do  operational work. It also provides an all-important venue for us referesh our commitment, to readjust our focus as well as our membership.

This is necessary if we are going to make the contribution that we’d intended to by forming the group. It’s a contribution that does not benefit only NATHIST, or even only ICOM but, we sincerely hope, the broad community of natural history museums. I am very much looking forward to seeing everybody in November. – Eric Dorfman

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