Cultural Sensibility in Cultural Institutions

By aguzmanb

Cultural Anthropology in the United States has been plagued by ethical dilemmas from the country’s infancy. From creating ethically questionable projects such as Project Camelot and Project Cambridge – where American scholars were, under the name of anthropology, acting as spies for the US government – to displaying the rituals of other cultures in museums and special collections in libraries – remember that providing a sufficient cultural context in a museum cabinet is difficult, if not impossible. The PERC (Program for Ethnographic Research & Community Studies) article got me thinking about ethics and how they are applied in museums and special collections in libraries regarding cultural anthropology. Here I want to talk about the ethical fine line that is often crossed by museums and what some of them are doing to fix it. There is no doubt that there have been, and will continue to be, huge benefits in having certain artifacts and human remains available to study. Research using museum and library collections have been able to advance knowledge of the development of humans and the society, the history disease and religion, etc. “Display of human remains, both physically within museum galleries and online, is an important part of sharing this information to the widest possible audience. This not only spreads knowledge but may also help to generate enthusiasm for learning about our past; hopefully for the benefit of future generations. Of course, display should be done with careful thought. There is no justification for the voyeuristic display of human remains simply as objects of morbid curiosity.” This, of course, also applies to artifacts of civilizations that still exists, i.e. Native American artifacts.

The benefits of research however, must be set against the feelings of communities with strong connections to some of the artifacts and remains within museum and library collections. In recent decades there has been a growing concern in addressing ethical issues in museums and libraries as its workers have developed a cultural sensitivity and a social responsiveness to a degree unseen before. Most codes of ethics urge museums and libraries to give appropriate consideration to represented groups or beliefs. We need to know, understand and recognize the differences in cultures and seek consultation with others when caring for culturally sensitive material. Something that may seem appropriate to a “non-tribal” institution – such as a public Library – to make available to the public, may not be the case. Decisions about what to exhibit in the museum or library or what to publicize in digital collections, and the means of presentation, space, language, and so on, are critical considering it will influence the public’s perception in many ways. As curators, archivists or special collections librarians, our main responsibility, in my humble opinion, is to the culture you are presenting to the public as it may be an incorrect one – or even a disrespectful one.

One of the cases I read in conjunction to this article was a very simple one that ended with no complications – and as we know, it doesn’t always end this way. The case involves what  the best practices for culturally sensitive material held by a non-tribal institution may be in a specific situation. The Head of Special Collections and Archives of the Eli M. Oboler Library (part of Idaho State University) worked with one of its interns to identify culturally sensitive images. Once found, they felt it was necessary and proper to remove the funerary and ritualistic images of the Fort Hall Tribal – Native Americans of the area – from the digital collection until members of the aforementioned tribe were consulted. These images were taken in the late 1920s and clearly showed the sacred ceremony of the Sun Dance, a ceremony that we know is private, and a funeral of a person dressed in full regalia, thought to be a Chief. These images were retained and published prior to the arrival of the current Head of Special Collections and were paid no mind until this project in 2013. The consultation with the appropriate members of Fort Hall ended in a mutually beneficial agreement: the images in question are to be restricted to the public. The Fort Hall Tribe would also be provided with a digital copy of the other images pertaining to the tribe and, in return, the Fort Hall Tribal Archivist and the Ancestral Researcher agreed to identify the photographs and provide the information to the Head of Special Collections at ISU. Both parties were still working on this particular collection last year, but by the Head of Special Collections reaching out to the tribe, the institution has opened the door for potential future collaboration.

All collections come with some level of responsibility, and, when working with objects and human remains, cultural sensitivity should be one of the most important things we are aware of. The effects of collecting on indigenous people can be devastating to its religion, its  spirituality, and its culture. The removal of sacred pieces, for example, belittles indigenous religion. The museum or library who holds a culturally sensitive collection must make sure it is not culturally inaccurate and religiously offensive. If the institution is currently holding a questionable object, it must work to resolve the issue it may arise, as it is our responsibility.


PERCS: The Program for Ethnographic Research & Community Studies. “The ethics of fieldwork.” Elon University.

Fletcher, Alexandra. “In Respect of the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum.” The British Museum. N.p., 12 June 2014. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.

Ryan, Ellen M. “Identifying Culturally Sensitive American Indian Material in a Non-tribal Institution.” Case Studies in Archival Ethics (2014): n. pag. Print.


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