BY: NATANIA SHERMAN
|Large Group in the Living Room, 1963. Chromogenic print, 8.8 x 19 cm. © Art Gallery of Ontario. (Source)|
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.