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Ethics case example: Changing the story

Issues of copyright and informed consent in a museum-based project


This case example was contributed by a community outreach worker with a large local authority based museum service in the UK. The role of the community outreach team at this museum service is to engage excluded audiences and community groups in the collections and venues of the museum service through creative heritage projects, which are developed and delivered in partnership with the group. This reflects a growing trend for museums to develop their engagement with local communities. Outreach staff work in partnership with community groups and voluntary organisations to develop and deliver a range of different creative heritage projects, which can include reminiscence projects, arts and crafts, oral history projects, film and photography, object handling sessions, or one-off visits behind the scenes or museums visits. The case example offers an account of some of the ethical challenges of working with local people on a digital storytelling project, particularly the issue of informed consent.

The case

I was project manager for a large-scale partnership digital storytelling project that took place between 2008-2011. The project was designed to work with members of the public living across the region to tell and make their own digital stories, which would then be displayed across the region and formally accessioned as part of the museum’s collections. By adding these stories to the museum collections, the project demonstrated that people’s stories were valued by the museum. This also meant that the stories would be available for future display after the end of the project.

My role was to manage the project from initiation to completion. I was responsible for managing the extensive project team from across the four regional partners, who were facilitating workshops with a range of community groups and organisations across the region. In addition to running workshops where stories were produced, there was also a public screening programme of these stories, which included a website that is still active, a festival of events, a museum exhibition and the opening of an empty shop in a busy city centre shopping centre. In total nearly 600 people created digital stories and a further 40,000 people engaged with the stories through the public screening programme.

I was aware from the beginning that what we were asking people to do was no small thing. We were asking people to share their personal stories and to consent for them to be not only displayed in the short term, but to be accessioned into the museum’s collections for perpetuity. The project team discussed how to make sure we were supporting those involved to give their informed consent for these uses of their stories. By ‘consent’ we meant getting people’s agreement for the stories to be used for particular purposes. The project was directly linked to short term display and long term public access through the museum’s collection. Because of this it was felt that the project needed to make people aware of what was happening to their story at the beginning so that they would create a story they would be happy to share. We decided that we would take an ‘upfront’ approach to consent and copyright.

Getting a clear assignment of copyright to the museum at the start was also seen as important, because the museum did not want to have to go back and seek permission every time they wanted to reuse the story. This was not just a practical point, rather it was linked to questions of public value and the need not to focus resources disproportionally on a small group of people. ‘Copyright’ is the exclusive right to produce copies and to control an original literary or artistic work, granted by law for a specified number of years.

There were many moments that made it obvious how difficult it was for anyone to give informed consent and the particular difficulties of informed consent that come from signing over copyright. The project was very public – for example, the stories were shown on a big screen in a neighbouring town. However, a more unimaginable dimension to consent in terms of signing over copyright was that of future use.

One example of this arose approximately eight months after the project had officially ended. One of the effects of assigning copyright and then of the stories being accessioned into the collection was that they became fixed. In theory, they could not be changed. Yet two participants had told their stories about partners from whom they had since split up. The first participant wanted their story removed from public display and the other wanted their story changed. In the first case, this was relatively straightforward and simply involved removing the digital story from the website and adding new notes to the collections management records for that particular story, so remaining and future museum staff were aware of these new restrictions placed on this story. The second example was slightly more complicated, as it raised issues about whether these digital stories should be treated in the same way as 'regular' museum objects. As an accessioned object, and in the same way someone cannot change the content of the oral history, should the master copy of this digital story be changed to take into account the wishes of the story creator, even though the museum ‘owns’ the story? This caused a dilemma as I wanted to respect the wishes of the participant, but I was unsure about what the appropriate action should be. This situation had not arisen before as the museum service had not used digital storytelling as a community engagement tool before this. A solution has yet to be found by the museum service due to current changes with the collections management system. Perhaps a compromise in this situation would be to adapt the public version of the story while leaving the master copy as it is.

Both these situations certainly made me feel conflicted - there were the understandable wishes and feelings of the story creator on one side, versus the official procedures of museum collecting on the other. This example clearly demonstrates that the ethical issues of accessioning 'digitally born' material that has been produced by the public needs further thought and debate.

It might seem like the answer to all this is to negotiate in each case, taking account of particular circumstances. Although this does work in many cases, the question of accessioning of objects does make this more difficult and raises questions of whether it is ethically right that a personal story and a digital object should be ‘fixed’ in this way.

The issues raised by this project led to further work being undertaken on the issue of informed consent in the museums sector. In a focus group held with participants twelve months after the project ended, most people said they were fine with signing over copyright. However, they wanted to be told if their story was going to be re-used and said they would like to be invited to the exhibition opening. They repeatedly described this as being shown 'courtesy'.

Questions for discussion

1. This case study gives an account of an issue that is framed as an unresolved dilemma for the community outreach worker and the museum service: whether to change the woman’s story or not. What are the arguments on both sides?

2. In Commentary 2, it is suggested that one response to the dilemma might be to see the testimony not as a fixed object or story, the ownership of which is taken from its author by the museum, but as an ‘authored or controlled contribution’ that might be changed by the author over time. What are the practical and ethical implications of this?

3. All research involving interviews raises similar issues about interviewees’ rights to modify and control the use of records of the interview. If this project is framed in terms of ‘co-production’ (i.e. people researching themselves in partnership with the museum) does this make a difference to how we view the rights and responsibilities of the contributors of the stories?



Commentary 1 Rachel Pain

This case example comes from outside of academic research in a museum context, but the core issue it discusses is familiar to us all. Public engagement and participation are now encouraged in areas of the public and voluntary sectors as well as universities. Indeed, museums have a long history of attempting different approaches to involve people in producing collections and exhibitions. In such institutional contexts, the ethical issues and dilemmas that face all researchers can be amplified. When we try to engage a participatory ethics, the conflicts with institutional ethics and practices are often the key struggle. The author highlights important issues of copyright and consent in her discussion. I would like to add to these some comments on participatory/institutional ethics, and the impact and relative visibility of cultural context.

Participatory/institutional ethics

The case study describes some of the ethical issues in a digital storytelling project, which engaged local people as knowledge producers. From this particular project, it brings to the fore a much more widely felt conflict between participatory and institutional ethics.

The former involves a 'retreat from the stance of dispassion' (Fine et al., 2000, 128) that traditionally characterises relations between institutions and individuals who are 'engaged' in their activities, such as research or in this case, developing a museum collection. The principles of participatory ethics commonly include forefronting of people’s representation, accountability, social responsiveness, agency and reflexivity (Manzo and Brightbill, 2007). Institutional ethics, on the other hand, are ethical protocols developed by particular institutions such as the museum or the university, ostensibly to ‘cause no harm’ and to treat publics with respect, but also serving to protect the institution and having foundations in particular traditions and understandings about knowledge generation, outputs and ownership.

By their nature, participatory ethics suggest an emergent process of negotiating ethics with participants based on their positions and concerns, and this rarely sits easily with inflexible institutional traditions and procedures.

In this case example, a careful and sensitive approach was taken to ethical issues over people’s stories. The major issue that surfaced was about the ownership of stories once they were recorded. Here personal ethics and wishes about making changes to or withdrawing ‘my’ story might potentially collide with the accessioning of objects in curation practice (here the story becomes the object and thus the 'museum's' to own and to take curatorial decisions about). The project made great efforts to respect people’s rights to make decisions about what happened to their stories. I was fascinated by the dilemma over one participant’s wish to change their story. The traditional assumption would be that the story is ‘fixed’; that there is an authenticity to a story even when the person who told it wants it to change. And yet if the story no longer reflects what the participant desires and wants it to project, does it not become meaningless? This dilemma reflects those of many other researchers: who does data belong to, and who should make decisions about what happens to it? In whose interests is the frequent practice of asking participants to sign away their rights to deciding on this? Participatory research, in contrast, has as an ethical priority joint ownership of whole research processes/projects, ownership of data always remaining with the person who produced it.

Cultural context

We are not told here, but I understand that a diverse range of social groups contributed stories to the digital storytelling project. This raises other dilemmas, which the author has not chosen to reflect on in the case example, about cultural context. Every story is produced from and enters a historicised cultural context where there are already great imbalances in the representation/voice of people of different social classes, genders and ethnicities. Museums in this region have tended to tell the stories of more powerful groups, or of white working class men; women and black and minority ethnic populations have been far less visible. So I wondered if there were ethical issues here about representing the stories of the less visible. There may be additional pressure on invisible minorities through the inclusion of their stories, and a bind of being held to 'represent' particular communities, as well as issues of reception among the wider audience. In other countries where working alongside excluded indigenous communities has a long history, practice is rarely perfect but there tend to be better developed existing precedents and protocols on which to draw.

Overall, this is an interesting and well-considered discussion of an ethical issue. Such examples from different areas of practice have much to inform and stimulate in thinking about ethical orientations in other forms of research.


Fine, M., Weis, L., Weseen, S. & Wong, L. (2000) ‘For whom? Qualitative research, representations and social responsibilities’, in Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (eds.) The Handbook of Qualitative Research, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 107-132.

Manzo, L. & Brightbill, N. (2007) ‘Towards a participatory ethics’, in Kindon, S., Pain, R. & Kesby, M. (eds) Participatory Action Research Approaches and Methods: Connecting People, Participation and Place, London: Routledge, pp. 33-40.

Rachel Pain is Professor in the Department of Geography and Co-director of the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action, Durham University, UK

Commentary 2 Helen Graham and Aileen Strachan

The case example outlines a very innovative piece of museum practice. The project pushed participation in museums to a new level by not only displaying the project’s outcomes but also accessioning them into the museum’s collections for perpetuity. In doing so the project reveals and questions some of the logics of museum practice, each of which have ethical implications.

The ethical dilemmas may seem specific to ‘digitally born’ objects, but the quandaries outlined flow from the inherent oddness of museums as institutions. Museums collect material culture perceived as being valuable for perpetuity – whether that is a painting by Monet or a commemorative mug – with the aim of keeping it safe and making it available for display and research to everyone now and everybody in the future.

Our first aim in responding to the case example is to relativise the dilemma by highlighting parallels with collecting non-digital objects. One interesting issue raised by the case example is the perceived link between accessioning and ‘fixing’, or ‘freezing’ the digital object. The museum’s hope in accessioning the stories was to demonstrate their value and for them to be looked after for display and research forever. However, the process of accessioning the digital story appears to have assumed a fixity and therefore raised the dilemma of whether participants have a right to change their story. Yet preserving objects is never about fixity as such. While it might seem that preserving an object is about keeping it the same, in reality the attempt to keep something forever requires intervention to stabilize the object and indeed, in some cases, active restoration work is undertaken. In other words, across museum collections, members of museum staff continually make negotiations and compromises, with political and personal dimensions. So while these questions are more apparent in the context of ‘changing’ a digital story, the fundamental idea of objects as subject to change as a means of securing their permanence exists across collections. That would suggest the possibility and even desirability of similar compromises with digitally born and co-created objects.

Traditionally, the argument for why the museum has to own - and therefore control - objects is that to preserve material culture requires large amounts of public money. In this way, it has been argued (for example in the Museums Association Code of Ethics for Museums, 2008) that an individual donors’ interests must be balanced against interests of the public as a whole. This means that objects cannot simply be returned to donors if they change their minds. However, one of the big differences flagged by the case example is the very personal nature of the stories. The case example suggests that when the stories are personal, even if the form is signed and the story is accessioned, then the museum still finds itself having to respond. In other words, when it comes to personal stories the same rules can no longer apply.

The case example quite rightly draws attention to the difficulty of aiming not simply for consent but informed consent. Informed consent in the context of museums is a difficult business. As is suggested by the compromises in the case study, participants find it hard to imagine a museum keeping a story ‘forever.’ In the case example, it is suggested that participants who wished to alter their stories could be accommodated with changes only to the currently public versions of their stories. Yet this raises questions about whether participants/story authors really are giving informed consent for the future use of the unadapted story.

The idea of public record is fundamental to museums and archives. It is clear that records such as council committee minutes or newspaper articles cannot be changed or expunged on request. Yet when museums work with people to produce personal testimony (not simply collect testimony that exists anyway) we wonder whether that changes the requirement to maintain unaltered records. Might it be possible to see that-which-is-collected not as a specific object or specific story, but the very idea of an authored and controlled contribution itself? If imagined that way, then the compromise suggested would not be necessary and the stories can evolve. All objects evolve so they can be kept, perhaps we need to accept that personal stories will do the same?


Museums Association (2008) Code of Ethics for Museums, London: Museums Association.

Helen Graham is University Research Fellow in Tangible and Intangible Heritage and Director, Centre for Critical Studies in Museums, Galleries and Heritage at the University of Leeds.

Aileen Strachan is Project Curator (Curious Project), Glasgow Museums (Glasgow Life).


Rachel Pain interviewed by Alex Henry 28 Feb 13

Aileen Strachan and Helen Graham interviewed by Alex Henry 28 Feb 13