Welcome to module 4

Learning Objectives


Module 4 will introduce the various elements associated with museum governance as well as the important legal and ethical issues museums grapple with in a broad sense.

By the end of this module students will be able to:

  • describe the purpose of a museum mission statement
  • identify the difference between legal and ethical obligations
  • name one important law that guides museum operations

lecture THEMES


In order for any organization to function smoothly, it is important to have a well-established governance structure. In this lecture, UA Museum Director Patrick Druckenmiller will discuss the different types of museum authorities the shared core values that philosophically guide its operations. We will explore museum nonprofit status, the mission statement, and the role that Directors and the Board of Directors play in guiding the organization. We will conclude with a brief introduction to legal and ethical issues in museums. (18:36)

Legal and ethical issues in archaeological collections, and human remains issues

Instructor Josh Reuther provides an overview of examples of federal and state legislation and regulations that govern museums, as well as ethical issues concerning the ownership, stewardship, collection, and disposition of archaeological collections in relation to museum and repository practice. He also presents a broad overview on legal and ethical issues dealing with human and ancestral remains in a museum setting. (34:26)

NAGPRA at the UA Museum of the north

Scott Shirar, archaeology collection manager, presents information about work related to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. This presentation includes a brief summary of NAGPRA, a history of consultation and repatriation at UAMN, issues and challenges the museum is currently working through, and our involvement with, and contributions to, the NAGPRA Community of Practice project. (7:37)

Legal and ethical issues in ethnographic, art, and history collections

Museums hold objects of cultural heritage that can be subdivided into ethnographic, art, and history collections, in addition to the archaeological collections you’ve just heard about. They tell stories of people and places in different ways. How they get into museums, how they are used in those museums, and how they find their ways out of museums are all subject to rules and regulations, laws and legislation. The following presentation by Angela Linn will introduce you to a few that impact the general operations of cultural heritage museums. (12:06)

Legal and ethical issues for natural history collections

Natural history collection holdings are primarily composed of preserved specimens and tissues of animals and plants collected from natural populations. A central motivation behind the development and continued growth of these collections is supporting and promoting growth in our knowledge of biological diversity.  Historically, ethical concerns regarding access to areas and populations for collection received secondary priority relative to the growth of collections. Current best practices place ethical, legal, and financial considerations, and continued discussions of yet to be resolved ethical dilemmas, at the forefront of natural history collection growth and curation.

Watch this video by Aren Gunderson, UAMN mammals collections manager, to learn about some of the legal and ethical issues for natural history collections. (12:20)

Legal and ethical issues in documentary film media

Alaska filmmakers Sarah Elder and Len Kamerling developed an Innovative approach to documentary filmmaking, which they refer to as “community collaborative filmmaking”. In the 1995 publication in your required readings, Elder discusses some of the legal and ethical considerations they take into account when working with Alaska Native communities to create films that are intimate representations of the people. Elder poses the questions: “Who should film who? What rights and responsibilities do filmmakers have? To whom are filmmakers finally accountable?” Consider these questions, while also thinking about how documentary film is incorporated into museums of natural, cultural, and art history.

This presentation by UAMN Curator Emerita of Documentary Film, Len Kamerling, provides visual examples of how these questions have been addressed in his own work at the Museum.  Watch here. (21:48)


Many of the issues surrounding museum governance, ethics, and the legal obligations are centered on a shared set of definitions of key terms. Learn this set of vocabulary to help understand the various topics we raise this module.

  1. Mission statement
  2. Board of Directors
  3. Nonprofit
  4. Stakeholder
  5. Copyright
  6. Intellectual Property
  7. Ethics
  8. Code of Ethics
  9. Governance
  10. NAGPRA
  11. Public Trust
  12. Social Justice
  13. CITES
  14. Nagoya Protocol
  15. IACUC

Activities / Assignments

Reading / Video content



The Development of NAGPRA (32:35)

Carrying Our Ancestors Home: What is NAGPRA? (9:13)

The Origin of Everything: The Problem with Museums (13:03)



For Exploration:


Log into our course shell in Canvas and go to ‘Quizzes’ on the left side menu.

Take ‘Quiz 4’: Vocabulary relating to museum governance, laws, and ethics.

You will have up to three attempts to match the vocabulary and definitions. Click over to Canvas to take quiz 4.

Meet Up

Time to get together! This is optional but highly encouraged. We will meet via Zoom at 12:30 pm (AKST) on Friday February 10. The link to the session can be found in this Google Document (you must be part of the class to view the document). If you are unable to join the meeting will be recorded and you will be expected to review the recording prior to writing your discussion post (see below).


Activity: Choose one large nonprofit museum representing a cultural collection and a natural history collection. Look up its governance structure. See if you can determine how each is governed (e.g., does it have a board of directors or something else?). What is its mission? Does it have a vision statement? What policies or codes of ethics are available for examination by the public?

  1. Create a new post on this website to address this assignment. Your post should be roughly 500 words and should include an image.  Think about material this week and personal experiences you have had to help illustrate your ideas. Alternately, find a recent news article to share about a museum, what are some of your thoughts relating to the article.
  2. At the end of your post, include a question for your fellow students to answer.
  3. Respond to each others’ posts (you will need to respond to/comment on at least two other posts).
  4. Select “4. Governance” from the list of discussion categories on the right hand side of your posting window on the dashboard.

Looking Forward

Next week we’ll look at Curation and Collecting, especially considering the legal and ethical issues of museums collecting natural history, cultural history, and art.

Did you know?

Fun tidbit not to be tested on.

Édouard Manet’s “Chez Tortoni.” (Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)

The largest art heist in history was completed in 1990 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, totaling 13 paintings worth $500M. To this day, all of the empty frames are still hanging, acting as placeholders until the pieces are returned. – Source