DIGITAL MUSEUM ETHICS | Dealing with difficult issues

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Martin Bazley

By Jenny Kidd, Lecturer, Cardiff University

As a teacher in Higher Education and a researcher in the museums sector I find myself increasingly immersed in discussions about digital media ethics. They are appearing in my Twitter feed with increased regularity too. It would seem that as we find ourselves (often) more confident now in our use of digital media, we are able to stand back and ask questions about what it is they DO to us, whether what we do with them is always appropriate and defensible, and what our strategies are for responding should it become apparent that they are not.  

 Digital media raise ethical questions that should be considered, and reviewed, by institutions on a rolling basis because making decisions pertaining to ethics is an unavoidable and ongoing part of our daily practice. What is an ethical response in one moment might not be in another. What is an ethical response in one project might not be in another. Situations change, digital platforms– and the terms on which they operate – mutate. As we know with such media the ground moves quickly beneath our feet making them exciting, but on occasion unfamiliar, territory for us and our online and offline constituencies. Whether we are working with formal learning groups, ‘casual’ visitors, or those separated in time and space on the Web, ethics are unavoidable.

 Social media especially might be considered a test-bed for our practice when it comes to such issues as: surveillance and privacy; moderation; the archival and ethical use of audience content; transparency in collaboration and co-production; the ethical utilisation of data for marketing or as analytics; and the disposal of user data also. 

Some questions we might consider:

·     Are we comfortable encouraging visitors/audiences to use proprietary platforms wherein their data is harvested and sold to advertisers (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter)? 

·     Are we clear about how we will use the data we harvest [Is it transparent for example if wifi users will subsequently be bombarded with marketing messages]? How will it be stored safely?

·     Do we conform to International norms for web accessibility and usability in our digital learning portfolio? Who do we exclude through our digital programmes by using particular platforms, operating systems etc.? Are we content that we could not be doing more? 

·     Is crowdfunding always ethically defensible?

·     Do online collections recognise the subjective and political nature of interpretation in their presentation?

·     Do we have a plan for what we will do if a user becomes distressed in their interactions with us online? 

·     Are staff who spend (often significant amounts of) their own time on social media out of work hours properly compensated? How is professional/personal demarcated within such spaces?

·     Is it defensible to collect personal testimony on an important local issue and then dispose of it when the archival platform becomes defunct? 

·     Do we check that users own the images they profess to own or is self-assertion enough? 

·     What are the digital legacies of high profile commemorations, and how are they utilised – even appropriated – over time? 

·     Do we have an ethical responsibility to ensure collections data is complete and (to the best of our ability and budget) future-proofed?

·     Are certain uses of our online collections defensible and others not? Or does it depend on the financial gain?

·     Are the subtleties of our mischief-making online always understood and does it matter if they are not?

·     Are ethics a consideration of our digital policy/strategy and larger mission statement? 

There is also a question of course about how – and where – we create space to talk about ethical conundrums with peers in the sector.

 The UK Museums Association is about to launch its new Code of Ethics, and we already know there will be a more nuanced consideration of digital ethics. The Digital Learning Network would like to celebrate that launch by creating a space where people can begin to share their thoughts and experiences on this increasingly visible and unavoidable topic.

The Digital Learning Network’s next Twitter live #DLNETChat on the subject of ethics will be taking place on Friday 6 November, from 12.00pm until 2.00pm. Keep an eye on the hashtag and on the DLNET Twitter account, @DLNET. Alternatively, post questions or comments to the DLNET Email List using #DLNETChat in the subject line, and we will try and compile responses and bring them back to the list. You can also leave a comment here.

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