The Museum’s Association code of ethics for museums
The Museum’s Association is the largest association representing museums and galleries in the United Kingdom. As part of this, they have produced guidelines for best museum practice since 1977. At the end of April I attended the London launch of their new Code of Ethics for Museums at the Wellcome collection. One of the claimed benefits of the new code is that it is more accessible than previous versions. I would like to take this opportunity to recommend that anyone involved in museums should read it (it’s available online here: http://www.museumsassociation.org/ethics/code-of-ethics) and take some time to think about how it might affect them.
What is a Code of Ethics and why do museums need one? The code “sets out the key ethical principles and the supporting actions that museums should take”. There is lots that all museums do that deserve ethical reflection, but it is also clear that we must make meaningful decisions out of that reflection. The Code is set out on three key themes: Public engagement & public benefit; Stewardship of collections and Individual & institutional integrity.
The role of museums to work with the public was a key message, and I think that we at Chiltern Open Air Museum do a great job of this. Di Lees, Imperial War Museum Director who was on the discussion panel, talked of the responsibility of museum staff, volunteers and partners to be “public servants” and I like the image that this draws. We would be nothing without our audience!
The Museum Association’s director, Sharon Heal, championed “everyday ethics”. Ethics are not just for big decisions about whether to accept funding from oil companies or whether to purchase antiquities from war-torn countries. Ethics are about how we treat our Museum site, the buildings that we have erected and in storage, the artefacts that bring our buildings to life and anyone that we come into contact with while we are here.
However, as I quickly learnt, it is rare that there is a black and white ethical question, so knowing where to draw the line can be very tricky. While museums were encouraged to make pre-emptive policies, to prevent knee-jerk reactions to sticky ethical dilemmas which might polarise opinions, we must not be afraid to engage in debate. While I hope we won’t see protesters at COAM, I hope that some of what we do makes people stop and ask questions!
Visitor Services Team Leader