MA Student, Program in Maritime Studies
A considerable ethical issue in conservation and museum work in general is that of accessioning and de-accessioning, and the responsibilities implicit to the institution in undertaking either. When an institution accessions an artifact, it is typically understood that the institution, in doing so, agrees to care for the artifact in question in perpetuity. In practice, however, forever is a long time. A museum may come to regret acquiring an artifact or an entire collection and the inherent financial burden that each artifact brings with it. This may lead to various abuses of said artifact, some more explicit than others. The author has seen artifacts sawn up and sold for fundraising, an event which occasioned much curatorial wailing and gnashing of teeth. More commonly though, unloved artifacts are simply neglected, allowed to deteriorate in storage, until their historical and interpretive value is badly degraded or lost entirely.
Ethically, it is necessary to consider each artifact as priceless individual snowflake. Upon close inspection, this premise must be conceded to be a polite, if necessary, fiction. Let us imagine a hypothetical situation. Suppose a museum accessions both the Mona Lisa and an old tennis shoe of uncertain provenance. Depending on the museum, either artifact might be considered germane to the museum’s interpretive goals – the Bata shoe museum in Toronto must be supposed to have different priorities than an art museum. Suppose also, that the museum catches fire. Which artifact does the curator grab on his way out the door? In all likelihood, it will be the Mona Lisa. Although in theory both artifacts are to be given equal billing, and preserved for the general betterment of humanity, in practice one will be preferred over the other. This reflects a broad array of economic and cultural biases, and these biases are not always a bad thing. All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.
Why is it important then, to conserve the tennis shoes of uncertain provenance along with the Mona Lisa? Because each artifact can answer questions about the past when properly interrogated. Some artifacts may be more culturally and economically significant than others, but all are equally historically significant. Some artifacts simply answer humbler questions than others. Ignoring the tennis shoes in preference to the Mona Lisa leads to a certain plutocracy of the past. We only learn about the wealthy and successful, the people who had nice things, and to do so is to look backwards through a lens that is inherently distorted. More people have owned tennis shoes than Renaissance masterpieces, and their story is not less important because it is unglamorous. Thus, the conservator and the curator must tend all of the members of their flock equally, even if some of those animals are more equal than others. To fail to do so is an abdication of professional responsibility to both the past and the future.