Monday, 27 June 2016




Large Group in the Living Room, 1963. Chromogenic print, 8.8 x 19 cm. © Art Gallery of Ontario. (Source)
The concept of consent is one that comes up frequently in media and has interesting implications when it comes to museum practice. I recently read an article in Canadian Art magazine about the Casa Sussanna album that was on display for the Art Gallery of Ontario's (AGO) Outsiders: American Photographers and Film 1950's-1960's exhibition and has been circulating as promotional material for this year’s Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival including a public display in St. Patrick subway station. The article brought up an interesting point, that although the material was being received as a positive public representation of the LGBT community, the circulation of these images raised a lot of questions about the privacy of its subjects, and their ability to consent to now being part of museum and festival promotional material. While it is genuinely exciting to see museums and cultural festivals celebrate positive representation, the reality is that public representation needs to take into account the safety and well-being of those individuals or communities being represented. This is where thinking about consent can become part of collecting institution’s policies and code of ethics. Collections managers and curator’s must be willing to balance the question of representation vs. consent, and be willing to employ policies that respect the parties involved.

The photographic record is not the only arena in which consent may play a role in collections practice. Historically, museum artifacts have been acquired through less than ethical means. The result of this historical practice is that many museums contain looted or stolen material, human remains and sacred objects. A self-reflexive institution needs to uphold best practices to ensure that the consent of all parties involved is upheld, including the of living ancestors of people whose bodies are now in museum collections, and respecting the requirements of ceremonial objects some of which require restricted access in their original contexts. As a collections manager recently told me, while there are some people who will donate their bodies to science, very few sign up for a second life as a museum artifact. There is often only one chance to create policies which show respect to the person in question. In the past, human remains were taken from indigenous or First Nations communities, and there are cases where relatives of the person now in a museum collection are still living. In cases like these, museums need to be open to creating accessibility for the relevant communities to visit their ancestors or to consider repatriation. When it comes to making decisions surrounding sensitive objects, taking the time to consult source communities around the need for special policies regarding certain objects can have a profound impact on the museum's relationship with those communities. The Canadian Art article also points out that a museum is a controlled space. While many museum professionals lament that fact as exerting an oppressive authority over visitors, an alternative view is that museums can use their authority to actively model respect for sensitive objects and by extension, for the communities that those objects represent.

Collections managers can add special accessibility specifications to certain sensitive objects, create policy about how an object is shown and who gets to see it, and get permission from living relatives to make decisions about display and care. Additionally a policy based on the idea of consent can be built into practices surrounding accessioning objects and new acquisitions. Making those decisions when new objects arrive in the collection will be greatly appreciated in any succession plan by collections managers and curators of the future. Ultimately the result of respecting the consent of all those involved in the decisions to display or not display an object is the building of a museum profession based not on authority but based on trust and mutual respect.

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