In November 2015, the (UK) Museums Association approved a new version of the Code of Ethics for Museums. The Code is one of a series of guidelines on museums’ ethics published by the Museums Association which also include ‘Guidance on the ethics and practicalities of acquisition’ and the ‘Disposal Toolkit’.

The Museums Association has been at the forefront of museum ethics since it published its first Code of Practice in 1977. Since then, it has been continually developing museum standards.  The revised Code states that it applies to all museums “bound by national laws and international conventions relevant to museums” and includes “governing bodies, to those who work for museums, paid or unpaid, to consultants and those who work freelance, and to those who work for or govern organisations that support, advise or provide services to museums, including the MA.”  Those working in associated sectors, such as archives and heritage organisations, may also be included.  All such staff, volunteers and governing bodies that have adopted the Code must read and understand it and integrate the key principles into their day-to-day work.

The Code is fairly succinct, with three headline principles that should be applied by museums when making key decisions. They are:

(i)     public engagement and public benefit;

(ii)    stewardship of collections; and

(iii)   individual and institutional integrity.

Underlying each principle, is a practical section outlining ways in which museums should behave in order to uphold that principle. It is clear that the intention was not to produce a lengthy, all-encompassing guide, but instead, the Museums Association has identified core values for museums to bear in mind when dealing with ethical issues.

The Code applies to all museums that are members of the Museums Association. The standards set out in the Code also underpin the Accreditation Scheme for museums in the UK so non-compliance can result in museums being struck off the scheme (see below).

It is interesting to see the emphasis that has been placed on the role of the public in the Code and the significance that has been attached to what the public’s perception is of museums’ behaviour. Principle 1 of the Code stresses the importance of maintaining the public’s trust in museums and specifically supports the use of museum collections for “public learning, inspiration and enjoyment”.  This drive for public engagement and benefit has been at the forefront of the ethics debate, in particular since recent press articles regarding controversial decisions by museums have come to light.  One such example involved a woman called Christine Hinde who donated her father’s war medals to the Combined Military Services Museum in Maldon, Essex.  She specifically requested that the medals were not to be sold.  She was shocked when it later transpired that the items had been sold on eBay for £32.

Another area in which there has been much debate, relates to the way in which any artwork or collection is viewed by a museum. In accordance with Principle 2 of the Code, all collections must be treated as “cultural, scientific or historic assets”.  Under no circumstances should museums treat collections as financial assets or arrange a disposal on that basis.  In today’s market, where works go for millions of pounds on a regular basis and very publically, it may be challenging for some museums to separate the cultural, scientific and historic value of their collection from the financial value.  However, as set out in the Code, the key duty for museums is to ensure that they refuse to undertake any disposal which is principally for financial reasons.  They must also “maintain and develop collections for current and future generations” and “acquire, care for, exhibit and loan collections with transparency and competency in order to generate knowledge and engage the public with collections”.

An example of where a museum failed to manage its collection ethically was that of the Sekhemka limestone statue. After learning of the value of the statue during an insurance assessment, Northampton Borough Council, which runs the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery and the Abington Park Museum, decided to sell the statue at auction to help fund other cultural projects, including an extension to the museum.  The local community fiercely opposed the sale.  Nevertheless, the statue was sold at Christie’s for £15.76 million, significantly more than the £4-6 million estimate.  Both museums have been stripped of their accredited status and have been barred from receiving public funding.

An additional point to note in the Code is the obligation on museums under Principle 3 of the Code to carefully consider offers of financial support from commercial organisations and other sources in the UK and internationally. Museums are required to seek support from organisations whose ethical values are consistent with their own.  Some museums have been criticised in the past for making deals with or receiving sponsorship from companies that are viewed as unethical.  Examples include Shell’s sponsorship of the Science Museum and BP’s sponsorship of the Tate.

Acting ethically includes not allowing sponsors to exert any influence over the contents of exhibitions, such as was the case when Shell asked the Science Museum to take into account specific recommendations about its Climate Science gallery. On the one hand, corporate sponsorship will remain an important part of gallery funding, on the other hand, the Code provides that museums may not accept sponsorships from controversial sources that do not adhere to the same ethical standards as the museum.  In practice, this means that museums are going to have to be careful about what they accept and from whom.

Non compliance

If a museum is accused of breaching the Code, the matter will be referred to the ethics committee of the Museums Association. In cases where a museum or museum professional is alleged to have acted unethically, the ethics committee will investigate the allegations and provide their view on the matter.  If the breach is serious and requires escalation, the ethics committee may report the breach to the director of the Museums Association, who may in turn report the matter to the board and disciplinary committee of the Museums Association for further investigation and possible sanction.

If the museum is found to have violated the Code, it may be stripped of its accreditation. Loss of accreditation may have long term consequences, such as unwillingness by donors or other museums or public bodies to cooperate with those who are no longer accredited. This may, among other things, exclude them from certain cultural events or discourage parties from making loans to them and so could have important ramifications, not to mention the potential loss of grants and funding.

Rose Guest