Ethical issues in anthropological research and ethics in museology

Tina Palaić

Before we started to study their perinatal customs, practices and experiences, I have visited Roma women to determine the research issue and project activities together. All women, to whom I spoke to in two Roma communities and at the society which one of them leads, were willing to talk about maternity. They recognize the identity of being a mother crucial for them and they immediately started to talk about their different experiences. It was extremely important for me to plan the activities together and to give them the opportunity to express their fears and possible obstacles and also to suggest some changes in the process of cooperation. With my colleagues – Nika Rudež and Anja Božič, performers of the theatre of oppressed – we discussed a lot about how to do the research into such a demanding and complex issue with the group of women, being often discriminated both – in contact with the wider community and within their own group. Ethical considerations were also necessary when we were curating the exhibition.

obleka 2

Mosaic of our realities – creator of the exhibition, Jasmina Ahmetaj’s dress / Mozaik naših realnosti – obleka Jasmine Ahmetaj, ustvarjalke razstave

A lot has been written about the research ethics in anthropology. Additionally, I also used the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums. As a starting point, we decided to conduct all the project activities together with Roma women; they actively participated in all stages of the project. To avoid causing any harm to them either inside their group or inside the majority community, we had to get acquainted with their needs and habits and of course respect them. Several factors had to be considered when preparing the activities: Slovene language skills, household, business and study obligations of the women, presence of children at the workshops in one of the groups, group dynamics and willingness to cooperate. We adapted the intensity of the research process to all of these factors. It was also important that we were focused on the process and not on the end results of the project, which empowered Roma women and gave them the feeling of control over the collaboration process. In my opinion, this was the crucial decision, since it enabled them with the power and security to stop the process at any time, due to the voluntary basis of the collaboration.

While curating the exhibition, we had to combine professional competence of museum curator and the needs and wishes of Roma women – as the holders of their heritage. Roma communities understand their heritage variously and the fear of the possible discrimination inside their community and in contact with majority population impacted the selection of presented content. Thus, the exhibition was the result of negotiations and compromises between the museum curator and Roma women and also between the participant Roma women themselves. They are experts in their heritage however, we cannot expect that they are familiar with the museum mission and the museology. Therefore, it is not ethical to enable them an entirely free creative expression, but it is the duty of the curator to create the exhibition in a proper way together with them. This means he or she has to include only accurate and valid information and be aware of the purpose of the museum interpretation. While curating the exhibition, we discussed about contents and images, which could possibly harm the Roma community and especially women and even strengthen stereotypes about Roma in the wider society. We had to avoid some presentations that could do harm also to other groups, for example majority community or some groups of Roma people inside Slovenian Roma community. We also turned the perspective and rather than presenting the Roma women in the position of victims, we presented them as active creators of their own lives. With the mosaic of their stories, we emphasized the differences between Roma groups and especially between women in a particular group. Therefore, we tried to overcome the image of homogeneous Roma culture and, what is more important, of powerless individual determined by it.


Prenatal customs/ Šege v času nosečnosti


Child protection against evil / Zaščita otroka pred zlom



Social Responsibility of Museums

Tina Palaić

For the last time, Sarenka stirred the black thick liquid with the spoon. She prepared it on the stove in a pleasently warm kitchen on the cold autumn day. When she brought the jesvah pot from which it smelled really delightful – to the kitchen table, I knew that this was an excellent beginning of our cooperation. Everything starts with a good coffee! Sarenka is young active Roma, living in one of the Slovene Roma communities. She works as Roma assistant in Roma preparatory kindergarten. In the oldest house in her community she established a small museum, where she presents the Roma culture! The heritage connected us as well. I have contacted her to do the research about their perinatal customs, practices and habits with her and other women from the community. Roma women from two other communities were also included in the Slovene Ethnographic Museum’s project.

Before our cooperation, Sarenka has not visited museums. In general Roma communities in Slovenia were not, and still are not engaged in the museums enough. There is not much talking about Roma culture, especially not from their point of view, and they are rarely seen in the museums as visitors. At least in Prekmurje and Dolenjska regions Roma families live for long, many of them for more generations, and they significantly co-create their environment. From that point of view, it is really strange that they are overlooked in the museums. On the other hand, it is encouraging that in the last decade many Roma organizations and individuals, actively strive for preserving their heritage, as it is the case with Sarenka. With doing so they remind national and regional organizations responsible for this tasks to include Roma heritage and preserve and interpret it as well. Novel approaches in museology also encourage museums to present all social groups, especially marginalized ones, and emphasize their social activism in terms of recognizing and using their potential for impact they have on social situation. For instance, it is very important for Roma community that museums with presenting and interpreting Roma culture overcome their social exclusion and enable them to be heard as important co-creators of our society. With doing so museums create opportunities for Roma and members of majority community to meet, exchange experiences and ideas and thus, improve mutual understanding.

Due to historical events and current negative attitudes towards Roma that can be observed by the majority community and national institutions the cooperation with Roma community is not easily realizable. When I started to cooperate with Roma women it was a big challenge for me to establish the contact, and especially to build the mutual trust. For successful cooperation it was extremely important that they were included in all stages of museum work and were thus able to control the results of our collaboration. When we were selecting personal objects and stories to present their perinatal customs, memories and experience, it became obvious how important it is that Roma women were not just interlocutors explaining the curator about their heritage. With the reflection about how to present their heritage with the exhibition in the museum they started to recognize the importance of their heritage and also the necessity to preserve it. My narration about their perinatal heritage, which would be distantly professional would weaken their strength to decide what they want to tell about themselves, and how they want to do it. It would also take away the possibility for visitors to fully experience women’s intimate world, which was now possible through their exhibited statements and personal objects.

How does the above described approach change curator’s way of working? When museums become spaces of dialogue, interaction and participation of all social groups we have to redefine the role and the position of the curator. I am going to write about this issue in my next text.