One of the buildings of Poland's Muzeum Sztuki, whose director Jarosław Suchan was dismissed in what many saw as the right-wing government's attempt to control cultural institutions. (via Wikimedia Commons)

A new report published by the International Committee for Museum Management (INTERCOM) and the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM) suggests that museums in Central and Southeastern Europe are subject to dangerously high levels of political meddling and influence. The report’s findings will help set the agenda for the upcoming International Conference of Museums taking place in Prague in August.

The report follows one published in April that found “astonishing, nearly absurd” cases of interference at some museums that warranted further scrutiny. 

The purpose of the research was to determine which factors constrain the creative independence of museums in European countries. Researchers sent out surveys and interviewed a focus group of directors in Southeastern and Central Europe, posing the guiding question of whether their work would benefit from less political interference. In recognition of the fact that the independence of museums varies hugely from country to country, researchers honed in on these geographic regions as ones they believe are most under threat.

The report noted that there have been a number of high-profile directorial changes at museums in past years that have taken place in the aftermath of elections or were otherwise politically inflected. One example is the dismissal of Jarosław Suchan, the former director of Muzeum Sztuki in Poland. The directors of the Tate, Guggenheim, and the Museum of Modern Art were unified in condemning his dismissal, which was viewed as an attempt by Poland’s right-wing government to influence and control cultural institutions.

In a foreword by INTERCOM Chair Goranka Horjan, she notes that “the interaction goes both ways”: “There is a strong political bias in the museum’s narrative and museum leaders that often connect meddling of politics with professional morale and ethics.”

Many museum directors who were surveyed by CIMAM and INTERCOM reported that it was important to them to be regarded well by politicians who might have sway over funding decisions. With already constrained funding, museums in Southeastern and Central Europe have been further tested by the pandemic, a time when ticket sales, philanthropic donations, and government support have been at an all-time low. “Many museums in southeast and central Europe are on the edge of operational capacity. This is also something that many directors would like to change if they had a free hand,” the authors point out.

In museum administration, ICOM’s Code of Ethics is authoritative in setting ethical standards and best practices. The authors of the report advise that the Code of Ethics be updated with clearer guidelines on how directors should interact with governing bodies. They also recommend the formulation of an “explicit governance code” that can keep “random/personal influences” at bay, and urge institutions and regional and national governments to develop more tailored recommendations based on these general guidelines.

While acknowledging that producing more bureaucracy may be counterproductive and susceptible to further political influence, they write, “the notion of ‘fight fire with fire’ lies at the core of these proposals.”

“We have no doubt that the introduction of an explicit code is a key indicator to all stakeholders (both internal and external) that all activities must be fulfilled in an effective, transparent, accountable and equitable way,” they say. “This is the future reality for all public-funded museums.”

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.