15 March 2021

Is the Code Sufficient? The Dutch Ethical Code for Museums and Questions of the Colonial

CLOSED SYMPOSIUM | 15 Mar 2021 | 11:00 - 18:00 | Zoom online

Taking the current moment as starting point, the Ethics Committee for Dutch Museums and the Research Center for Material Culture (Tropenmuseum, Museum Volkenkunde, Afrika Museum) organise the seminar Is the Code Sufficient?. This seminar explores what the debates and shifts in the museum landscape might mean for thinking about ethics in relation to colonial collections in museums. If, as the second paragraph of the introduction to the Code states, “the ethical code is influenced by societal changes and developments in professional practice”, how might this growing questioning about how the colonial past continues to shape museum practices in the present- in acquisition, interpretative and representational policies and practices - influence how the ethical code is understood and implemented? Is the code still sufficient in this time of decolonisation, or should it be modified?

This symposium is specifically intended for members of the Museumvereniging and their employees.

Recent controversy across Europe about what to do with objects collected during the colonial period in museums highlights the political landscape in which museums operate today. So political are the stakes that numerous governmental officials have weighed in on these discussions, including France’s president, Emmanuel Macron who, in a statement at the end of 2017 declared: “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums”. Never before had any European head of state so openly criticized museum policies. Shortly after Macron’s pronouncement other government officials, heritage practitioners and museum professionals across Europe joined in the discussion to set out (national) positions on how to deal with colonial objects in museums.

While these open statements by public officials may be unprecedented, issues related to contested objects within museums have been on the rise in recent years. Indeed, they come at a moment of increased attention from diverse stakeholders to how museums deal with their colonial pasts, giving rise to activist initiatives across Europe and North America such as Decolonize this Place in the USA, and Museum Detox in the UK that have been pushing museums to rethink their practices. In the Netherlands, Decolonize the Museum and other similar initiatives have come to challenge the ways in which Dutch museums deal with the colonial past. And there is a growing response from Dutch museums, as well as the Dutch state. This includes the recent letter of the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science to parliament about the national process established under her instruction for developing a national framework on how to deal with colonial heritage in museums.

One of the responses to this current moment was the Executive Board of the International Committee of Museums (ICOM) proposal for a new definition for the museum. Employing words such as “human dignity”, “global equality” and “societal wellbeing”, this new definition pushes beyond the programmatic terms of its precursor, to adopt a more active orientation towards social justice and questions of equity and equality. The new definition for the museum is still under discussion.

Though not exclusively, in this seminar we will focus on human remains, a category of objects regarded by many as one of the most contested, especially within ethnographic and world cultures museums. These objects not only raise issues about the rights of ownership or modes of acquisition and display, but also open up ethico-moral concerns about what it means to collect and ‘own’ the physical remains of others.

We invite speakers to respond to the following questions:

- How can museums determine who is the current representative, either in legal or cultural terms, of the  community from which the human remains (or objects containing human remains) originate, in order to know who to address, who to consult or deliberate with? How can museums assess, when a claim is made to return human remains or objects containing human remains , whether the claimant is the right party to consider returning  it to?

- On which grounds, if any, may a museum hold on to human remains or objects containing human remains, once an object is determined to originate from a certain colonial context? Does it make a difference, from an ethical point of view, whether the object is part of an ethnographic collection, an art historical collection, an archaeological collection, a scientific collection, or any other type of collection? May the value of an object in its ‘Western’ context, for example its role in remembering colonial history or as a point of identification for citizens with non-Western backgrounds, weigh in?

- How can museums ensure a just and respectful handling and presentation of objects from colonial contexts in European museums, promoting understanding?

BIO | Amber Aranui

Dr Amber Aranui (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Tūwharetoa) is project lead for Ngākahu – National Repatriation Project, which supports New Zealand museums and iwi in the return of ancestral remains held in museums collections. She is the co-founder and former chair of the New Zealand Repatriation Research Network, set up to assist repatriation researchers to work collaboratively with the aim of proactively returning ancestral remains back to iwi, hapū and other communities around the world.

Amber has been the researcher for the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme for over 11 years, and has developed an interest in the research, collection and trade of human remains and the effects on indigenous peoples throughout the world.


BIO | Janet Marstine

Janet Marstine is Honorary Associate Professor of Museum Studies (retired), University of Leicester. She writes on diverse aspects of museum ethics--from codes of practice to museum transparency to negotiating the pressures of self-censorship to artists’ interventions as drivers for ethical change. She has a particular interest in recognizing and supporting the agency of practitioners to make informed ethical decisions. Dr. Marstine is author of Critical Practice: Artists, Museums, Ethics (Routledge 2017), editor of The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum (Routledge 2011), co-editor of Curating Under Pressure: International Perspectives on Negotiating Conflict and Upholding Integrity (Routledge 2020) and New Directions in Museum Ethics (Routledge 2012) and editor of New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction (Blackwell 2005). She sat on the Ethics Committee of the UK’s Museums Association from 2014-2019, helping to move their approach from one of policing to empowering. Previously, she was Founding Director of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. She has received grants from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British Academy and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. She is now an independent scholar and consultant living in Yarmouth, Maine.