ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — Forty-one years ago, the American Association of Museums published a book by Helmuth Naumer, "Of Mutual Respect and Other Things: An essay on museum trusteeship." A guide to relationships between trustees and staff, this small book stimulated discussion in museums across the country and it soon became required reading for everyone.
We quickly learned that respect and trust are linked, but this book implied a broader range of thinking beyond interpersonal relationships. Collections and donors, of course, had long been respected and this was well understood, but as the profession progressed we saw that respect and trust were overarching concepts that encompassed the relationships between museums and their publics. We realized that these values impact everything we do and that they are central to the sustained operations of museums.
As we moved into a mode of conducting studies of audiences, one of the things researchers sought was to weigh the comparative trustworthiness of institutions of information and learning, museums included, for they are defined in our tax code as educational institutions. Such studies have been undertaken for some time now, and they always come back with the same results. Museums sit at the top. This is widely known among museum staff and trustees and is a lobbying point in budget discussions locally and nationally. The American Alliance of Museums summarizes these data on their website:
Museums Are Trusted:
- Museums are considered educational by 98 percent of Americans, across all ages, races, and geographical locations.
- Museums are considered the most trustworthy source of information in America, rated higher than local papers, nonprofit researchers, the U.S. government, or academic researchers.
- Museums preserve and protect more than a billion objects.
- Museums are considered a more reliable source of historical information than books, teachers, or even personal accounts by relatives.
Individuals, not abstractions
This is more than a point of pride for museum personnel, paid and volunteer; it is central to their work, for the loss of trustworthiness imperils both individual museums and the profession as a whole.
We speak of "trustees," and the "public trust," but these are abstractions. In reality, it comes down to assessing whether a museum is trustworthy by evaluating whether the people managing and governing it are themselves trustworthy. This is the basis for ethical behavior among people, both internally with employees and externally with the public. Indeed, the discussion and formulation of museum Codes of Ethics evolved out of Helmuth's thoughts on respect and trust among individuals, not abstractions.
Many things have the potential to break down trust in the eye of the public but, in museums, two stand out: financial mismanagement and unethical deaccessioning of collections. The first can result from ignorance, inexperience, or deliberate manipulation; the latter is driven by the concept of legality trumping ethics. "It's not ethical, but it's legal," is a statement we never discussed in the 1970s, but it has now become commonplace.
There are counter arguments to deaccessioning to "save" a failing museum, and those arguments can be made without undermining the fiduciary duties of trustees as stewards of a collection and representatives of a public which has placed trust in them. Such arguments need to be taken seriously, heard more loudly, and pursued more thoughtfully.
Unfortunately, the Berkshire Museum has come to represent a model of untrustworthiness. Surely that was not the intention of the trustees, but it is a collateral result. In the wake of their legal "success," they have, perhaps unwittingly at the beginning, set a precedent of substantial magnitude. Other museums will undoubtedly follow, and each one that "succeeds" will undermine the trustworthy reputation of the whole because of the national media coverage now trained on this issue.
The Berkshire Museum trustees probably gave no thought to how widespread the effect might be as a result of decisions made within the parochial view of their own situation. Ironically, they seem to have now evolved to a point where all of their perception is internal, yet their actions remain astonishingly wide-ranging. Regrettably, they can't put the genie back in the bottle.
Helmuth's wisdom, decades of thoughtful deliberation in museum policy-making, trust, and respect, are left in the wake.
James Moore is a trustee, Wichita Art Museum; coordinator, Art History program, Toledo Museum of Art;
lecturer, Adjunct Faculty, Honors College, University of New Mexico; Collections Committee, National Hispanic Cultural Center; Director Emeritus, The Albuquerque Museum of Art and History.