Do the right thing

ethics

noun

1.      moral principles that govern a person's behaviour or the conducting of an activity.

synonyms:

moral code, morals, morality, moral stand, moral principles, moral values, rights and wrongs, principles, ideals, creed, credo, ethos, rules of conduct, standards (of behaviour), virtues, dictates of conscience. 

Jonathon Lasker, The plan for morality, 2009

Jonathon Lasker, The plan for morality, 2009

 

Do what you think is right. Someone said this to me recently. It sounds so simple. This was unrelated to work but it got me thinking - what does doing ‘what you think is right’ mean in a workplace like a museum?

I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics lately and not just because of this theme but because I’m interested in the intersection of personal ethics and ‘the organisation.’ Or more specifically, how to negotiate your own personal ethical, moral code once you step into the wonderful, inspiring, constricting, frustrating confines of an organisation. Is it about finding balance? Compromise? Or should we hold steadfast to our own ethical lines? I’m interested if these two interdependent but individual entities can co-exist happily – like, really, really coexist; if a harmonious relationship full of reciprocity, mutual understanding and aligned goals is possible or if an inevitable disquiet/compromise/discomfort is the natural state of being in organisations where we constantly walk the uneasy and blurred line between the personal and professional – where the moral codes of each sometimes align and sometimes divert. I guess I’m pondering what my version of ‘doing what I think is right’ is.

This is especially loaded territory because, as museum staff, we work not for ourselves but on behalf of others – we do not own our collections that line our shelves, or the stories that speak from the gallery walls. And we certainly don't own the participation content that we are increasingly ask our communities to bring to the table. We are not governed by absolute truths or single word answers.

Museums are also interesting beasts because of how ethics not only interweave throughout our practices and interactions internally but also through the all-important performative, public element of our work. It is the point at which personal and professional converge. This point is the crystallisation of why many of us do what we do.

So, in fact there aren’t just two but three (at least three) ethical lines we traverse in our everyday, working lives – the personal, professional and public…three entities with very different goals and very different masters. I want to acknowledge here that many of our colleagues walk these lines in profoundly more complicated ways than me. That for many, the tension inherent in these considerations I'm talking about form a constant and potentially painful presence in the institutional space. It is a reminder of the strength of many of our colleagues to remain in the sector. And also a reminder to the rest of us that we all have a duty to question why we do what we do, how we do it and for who. Constantly. We must remind ourselves that the duty to question and stand up must not always fall on the same shoulders. And so we must question: 

Personal - our own moral code. I think many of us enter the cultural sector because we believe in the inherent positive social good that can come from connecting people with objects, history, stories and art. We believe that representation and reciprocity matter. I’m of the opinion that ethics, in all the meanings of that word, are front and centre of what we do. This can become complicated however when we run into the…

Professional – ethics play out on a professional level in many different ways. This could be anything from collection care (ensuring that objects are physically safe), to acknowledging the varying ethical considerations and priorities of colleagues. As previous pieces on Tusk have highlighted, museums are also often understood as ‘neutral’ spaces – many consider this consideration an ethical imperative – to ensure we remain agenda-less and non-partisan. A blank slate on to which the outside world is reflected.

Others believe that museums should hold themselves to a higher ethical code (heeelloooo Robert Janes) – that the concept of neutrality is a falsehood and to claim so is not only incorrect but irresponsible. I’m also of the mind that claiming neutrality gives us an easy out – exempting ourselves from accountability.

However, the ethical priorities of the profession (or the institution) and the individual can be disrupted by the…

Public – the public don’t necessarily understand the above considerations nor should they necessarily have to. For example, the physical ‘care’ of an object, so fundamental from a professional ethics point of view, may fly in the face of aspects of cultural care that are just as significant if not more so.  

And so, when we enter and work in organisations, is there a trade-off? Does a part of you that was autonomous, the free and radical part of you, the part that is driven and governed by a personal sense of right and wrong, dull and diminish at the behest of collaboration and compromise? Or at the needs of the public. Is this an inevitable process? Or should we rile against institutional homogeneity and stay true to what we think is ‘right’? My thoughts are – absolutely. ‘Riling’ doesn’t come naturally to me but I’m working on it.

So, maybe working in a museum is a constant negotiation of personal and professional ethics and how those two considerations come together in pursuit of aspirations that are bigger than the both of you combined. Perhaps it is about being accountable to your decisions, to yourself, to your public and to your organisation. It’s about understanding your context. Being aware of your colleagues’ differing ethical responsibilities and how you might support them.

Maybe it’s about being a constructive thorn in the side of institutional homogeneity.

Welcome to our newest theme – ETHICS. It’s complicated, it’s messy, once you think you have your finger on some kind of resolution, something shifts and suddenly it’s out of reach again. Perhaps there are no conclusions or hard and fast answers but instead many, many questions. If you have something to say - let it be heard!