Museums are ritual places in which societies make visible what they value. Through the selection and preservation of artifacts, specimens, and documents, museums begin to define for their societies what is consequential, valuable, and suitable as evidence of the past. Through their presentation and interpretation of this evidence, museums define not only what I memorable but also how it is to be remembered. Museum are thus unavoidably linked with their cultural settings. They are a collective self-reflection culminating in the maintenance, sustenance, and presentation of a cultural identity, as well as the embodiment of cultural values and attitudes believed to be important. Museums thus reveal their own moral nature, competence, and maturity in their decisions about what and how to transmit social values and ideas. While museums often claim to be value-neutral, nonmoral, and nonpolitical in intent, in their actual practice and behavior, they are moralizing institutions, reflecting as well as shaping their communities’ moral ecology.
The core of museums’ moral dimension is located in the decision and the choices that they must make and then visibly enact: What do they choose to collect and not to collect? What themes and materials are exhibited and under what interpretive conditions? What audience or audiences are courted and welcomed in the museum, and what audience or audiences are ignored? Who is given comfortable psychological, intellectual, and physical access to the museum and its resources? What programmatic themes are addressed? How is the museum governed? Who is on the board? Who is on the staff? These choices are value laden and, combined, establish a pattern of policies, procedures, and public programs that define and communicate the museum’s norms, ethics, and moral identity – its compelling sense of self. This contention that museums, because of their educational and social intent and institutional choices, cannot be value-neutral or nonmoral in their actions and behaviors, suggests that the question to be addressed is not should museums be moral educators but how museums should be involved in moral education. How can museums develop a conscious moral purpose based on appropriate aims, concepts, and content? If the goal of museums as educators is to assist in developing the whole person – his or her knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and feelings – then how should a museum develop the intellectual, aesthetic, and moral judgments of its visitors and communities? What ought a museum do?