Let’s Get Ethical

To help pass the time while we wait to see if nuclear war is going to break out, I thought it might be worth stopping to ponder on ethics. In their reference guide, Developing an Institutional Code of Ethics, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) makes the following statement – sound advice to museums and world leaders alike:

Operating in an ethical manner is a fundamental part of being a museum. Having a formalised code of ethics demonstrates to the public commitment to accountability, transparency in operations and informed and consistent decision-making. It positions the museum as reputable and trustworthy, which can strengthen relationships with stakeholders and the community.

Trustworthiness – an area where politicians score notoriously low in surveys of public perceptions  – is also highly valued in the UK Museums Association’s (MA) Code of Ethics for Museums (2016):

Museums are public-facing, collections-based institutions that preserve and transmit knowledge, culture and history for past, present and future generations. This places museums in an important position of trust… Museums must make sound ethical judgements in all areas of work in order to maintain this trust.

Having a code of ethics is a relatively new phenomenon in museum practice. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) produced their first Code of Professional Ethics in 1986. In 2001, it was amended and retitled Code of Ethics for Museums, and was further revised in 2004. Its purpose is to, ‘set minimum standards of professional practice and performance for museums and their staff’. Given ICOM’s global reach, it stands to reason that such a document is top level, and it’s left to individual countries and institutions to sort out the fine-print. It covers all the big stuff: preservation, care and research; provenance and due diligence; disposal of objects and deaccessioning collections; as well as dealing in artworks and conflicts of interest.

What does read strangely in the ICOM Code of Ethics is the relationship between museums and the public. Education is mentioned, but the focus is very much on traditional curatorial channels. For example, point four states, ‘museums provide opportunities for the appreciation, understanding and management of the natural and cultural heritage’, and there is further clarification that museums should attract wider audiences and interact with constituent communities. However, the sub-sections focus on: displays; interpretation of exhibitions; showing sensitive materials; removing objects from public display; exhibiting unprovenanced material: and producing publications and reproductions. Where’s the public engagement through programming events and activities for different audiences?… perhaps I hadn’t got to that bit yet… Point Five, ‘museums hold resources that provide opportunities for other public services and benefits’ – surely this would be the place to capture all the collaborative partnership working and community programming? Wrong again – ‘5.1 Identification of Illegally or Illicitly Acquired Objects’ and ‘5.2 Authentication and Valuation’. Scheesh.

Perhaps the lack of museum learning in the ICOM code is because it’s a nascent (or non-existent) practice in many countries. Having been involved in V&A consultation projects, working with partners in the Middle East and China, I’ve realised how much I take for granted regarding museum practice in the UK. For example, how do you establish a schools programme when there is no precedent for taking classes to museums? In many countries, it just wouldn’t occur to teachers to make museum visits, and it requires more than the Field of Dreams maxim, ‘build it and they will come’ to make it happen. It will be interesting to see if future iterations of the ICOM code introduce museum learning as the practice become more commonplace around the world.

The UK and US have well-established cultures of museum learning, and this is reflected in their codes of ethics, produced by the MA and AAM respectively. The MA code, quoted above, has three core principles:

  1. Public engagement & public benefit
  2. Stewardship of collections
  3. Individual and institutional integrity

That ordering caused quite a bit of controversy in the ol’ objects-first-or-people-first reductive tussle (personally I don’t think we are moving away from being collections-centric, I think we’re moving away from being institution-centric and can no longer put our own interests ahead of the public). Similarly, the AAM’s code of ethics (adopted in 1991 and amended in 2000) uses a lovely turn of phrase to express their dual commitment to the public and collections:

…the root value for museums, the tie that connects all of us together despite our diversity, is the commitment to serving people, both present and future generations. This value guided the creation of and remains the most fundamental principle in the ... Museums make their unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving and interpreting the things of this world.

AAM also offers great advice and guidance for any museum wishing to write its own code of ethics.

Just as the MA and AAM codes go deeper than ICOM’s into their nationally-specific context, a museum’s own code of ethics can go deeper again into the culturally-specific context of the institution. I think there’s also scope for thinking more carefully about the ethics of community engagement through museum learning practice. Both the MA and AAM codes say all the right things about working with the public:


  • The museum ensures that programs are accessible and encourage participation of the widest possible audience consistent with its mission and resources (AAM)
  • The museum ensures that programs respect pluralistic values, traditions and concerns (AAM)
  • Museums and those who work in and with them should actively engage and work in partnership with existing audiences and reach out to new audiences (MA)
  • Museums and those who work in and with them should ensure that everyone has the opportunity for meaningful participation in the work of the museum (MA)







These statements make us feel all warm and fuzzy - they are good values to hold and make clear our good intentions. Keep those words in mind when you read this extract from Bernadette Lynch’s report, Whose Cake is it Anyway? (2011):  

The fault-lines within the museum’s or gallery’s organisational culture were consistently revealed by the process of this study as barriers to proper involvement. Despite best efforts to the contrary, these invisible barriers continue to create and recreate the mechanisms of marginalisation. They include attitudes that, in a number of cases, influenced the following:


  • False consensus and inadvertently using people to ‘rubber-stamp’ organisational plans
  • Policies and practices based on ‘helping-out’ and ‘doing-for’
  • Community partners treated as ‘beneficiaries’ rather than ‘active agents’
  • Project funding leading to non-mainstreaming of participation and pretending things are better than they are
  • Absence of strong, committed leadership and a strategic plan for engagement (p.21)


A museum learning code of ethics could address these challenges and provide clear guidance on how not to fall into these traps. To start, we’d need to be more honest about what we can achieve with the resources available. It’s too easy to promise the moon on a stick - to communities, senior management and funders alike - but is that ethical when expectations then can’t be met? Is it responsible to offer community consultation and involvement if the museum’s leading decision-makers are not involved in the process/conversations? What exit strategies are in place when a long-term community partnership comes to an end? How do we document and share our work with vulnerable groups and underrepresented audiences responsibly? Should we keep trying to be all things to all people?

Scottish Government and the Scottish Community Development Centre (SCDC) have produced National Standards for Community Engagement off the back of the ‘Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, and guidelines like this could provide strong starting points for developing museum learning codes of ethics. I haven’t been able to find the equivalent national standards for England so do please get in touch if you know of it.

The rhetoric around public engagement is positive and optimistic - which you’d expect - but when do the words on the page stop being aspirational and start blindfolding us to what’s actually happening? Just saying it doesn’t make it so - if these are our values and what we stand for in the museum sector, what more can we do about it?
IMAGE: http://www.eightieskids.com/2016/03/10-female-fashion-icons-80s/5/


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