Monday, August 25, 2008

Ethics: Easy to Grasp -- Difficult to Interpret

I have had the good fortune to think about ethical questions from different standpoints and in a variety of contexts, as well as to grapple with actual situations that have arisen from time to time.  I certainly don't have all the answers, but what I do know is that standards of ethics sometimes differ among types of cultural institutions and are almost always evolutionary -- in other words, it's rare for a new institution to start out at square one with a full-blown understanding of its ethical responsibilities and a written policy to underscore them.

My career has allowed me to develop an awareness of ethical issues as I have developed as a museum professional.  I suppose that may sound obvious, but I do think that the longer you remain in a field, the more opportunities you'll have to discuss and ponder ethical issues - perhaps even act on one or two of them -- and they will all add to your body of knowledge and your understanding.

I think the topic of museum ethics is, in theory, relatively easy to grasp -- that is, there is a standard by which we conduct ourselves as professionals and by which we run our departments and institutions.  

That standard has evolved from and in response to, as Marie Malaro points out in her book, 
Museum Governance
, three fundamental concepts of not-for-profit corporations:  

1) not-for profit corporations foster diversity -- a plurality of ideas and people; 

2) not-for-profit corporations encourage greater quality of service or product; and

3) not-for-profit corporations encourage personal participation in the betterment of society.

By virtue of these three fundamental concepts, those of us who work in and with not-for-profit corporations are bound by a personal commitment of loyalty, honor and obedience to the mission and the public that corporation serves.

Many times, clear decisions can be made regarding ethical action.  But there are times when it is much more difficult to interpret the boundary lines of ethical conduct when we get down to specific situations, especially when dealing with people or institutions we know and care about.  



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