Code of Ethics for Museums

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 in relation to their audiences, local communities, donors, source communities, partner organisations, sponsors and funders. Museums must make sound ethical judgements in all areas of work in order to maintain this trust.

Introduction

This code supports museums, those who work in and with them and their governing bodies in recognising and resolving ethical issues and conflicts. It sets out the key ethical principles and the supporting actions that museums should take to ensure an ethical approach to their work.

Ethical reflection is an essential part of everyday museum practice. This code cannot contain all the answers to the ethical issues that museums face. Some actions that constitute a breach of the code will be more clearly distinguishable than others.

However, in all cases, practitioners should conduct a process of careful reflection, reasoning, and consultation with others, as well as consulting further detailed guidance on key areas of museum practice prepared by the Museums Association (MA) and other bodies.

Application of the code

All museums are bound by national laws and international conventions relevant to museums. The code supports this legal framework and sets a standard for all areas of museum practice. The code applies to 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 choose to adopt this code. They should observe the spirit, as well as the letter, of the code.

Museums should proactively champion ethical behaviour. All staff, volunteers and governing bodies should be introduced to the code in order to integrate its principles into their daily work. Some museums will also wish to set up their own internal bodies to ensure a degree of ethical oversight, and can use this code as a reference for decision-making.

The MA expects all institutional, individual and corporate members to uphold and to promote the Code of Ethics for Museums. To achieve Associateship of the Museums Association (AMA) members must demonstrate awareness of the code and the ways in which it is used. To achieve Fellowship of the Museums Association (FMA) members must show that they promote the wider application of the code within museums.

The Code of Ethics

Museums and those who work in and with them agree to uphold the following principles throughout their work:

1. Public engagement & public benefit

Museums and those who work in and with them should:

  • actively engage and work in partnership with existing audiences and reach out to new and diverse audiences
  • treat everyone equally, with honesty and respect
  • provide and generate accurate information for and with the public
  • support freedom of speech and debate
  • use collections for public benefit – for learning, inspiration and enjoyment

2. Stewardship of collections

Museums and those who work in and with them should:

  • maintain and develop collections for current and future generations
  • acquire, care for, exhibit and loan collections with transparency and competency in order to generate knowledge and engage the public with collections
  • treat museum collections as cultural, scientific or historic assets, not financial assets

3. Individual & institutional integrity

Museums and those who work in and with them should:

  • act in the public interest in all areas of work
  • uphold the highest level of institutional integrity and personal conduct at all times
  • build respectful and transparent relationships with partner organisations, governing bodies, staff and volunteers to ensure public trust in the museum’s activities
Additional information

The Museums Association

The MA is registered as a charity. It is a nongovernmental, independently financed membership organisation providing services to and reflecting the interests of museums and those who work for and govern them.

Development of the Code of Ethics

The MA has acted as the guardian of UK museum ethics since the first Codes of Practice and Conduct were introduced in 1977. These were updated in 1987, 1991, 2002 and 2007. This updated version of the Code of Ethics for Museums outlines ethical principles for all museums in the UK and was agreed following an 18-month consultation process during 2014–15. The development of this code has been a collaborative process involving representatives from across the museum sector, funders, interest groups, members of the public and other stakeholders.

This document represents the general consensus of the sector on the ethical standards that are expected of all museums and those who work in and with them.

Role of the ethics committee

The ethics committee of the MA is made up of a number of independent experts drawn from the museum sector and other experts. Its role is to:

  • Develop and monitor the maintenance of sound ethical principles and behaviour within the museum sector.
  • Give advice and guidance on ethical matters to the museum sector, including MA board and staff.
  • Recommend to the board amendments to the Code of Ethics where deemed necessary.

Alleged breaches of the code can be considered by the ethics committee. In some cases, where a museum or museum professional is alleged to have acted unethically, the ethics committee will investigate a matter in order to provide a considered opinion. The committee is also able to report a breach to the director of the MA, who may in turn report the matter to the MA board and disciplinary committee for further investigation and possible sanction.

The Code of Ethics and the law

The Code of Ethics for Museums defines standards that are often higher than those required by law. However, the code cannot override the legal obligations and rights of those who work in or for museums, including those arising from any contractual relationship there may be with an employer or client.

The Code of Ethics for Museums must be subordinate to the legal powers and obligations of governing bodies responsible for museums and the legal powers and obligations of individual members of such bodies. However, the MA believes this code’s provisions to be in the best interests of the public and therefore urges all museum governing bodies (and where appropriate, subsidiary, subcontracted or delegated bodies such as executive committees, contractors or managing bodies), formally to adopt it.

The Code of Ethics and other voluntary standards

Ethical standards developed in this document help to underpin the Accreditation scheme for museums in the UK at an institutional level.

Accreditation is administered by Arts Council England in partnership with the Welsh Government, Museums Galleries Scotland and the Northern Ireland Museums Council. Consult the Arts Council England website for further information. The MA supports the work of specialist organisations in the UK whose members are involved in museum work and who may produce their own codes of ethics and ethical guidelines. The MA can help in cross-referencing to these codes and guidelines and in referring enquirers to appropriate sources of specialist advice.

The Code of Ethics for Museums is consistent with the Code of Ethics for Museums worldwide produced by the International Council of Museums (ICOM). The MA supports ICOM’s work.

Glossary

Access

Usually seen in terms of identifying barriers that prevent participation and developing strategies to dismantle them. Barriers come in many forms and may be physical, sensory, intellectual, attitudinal, social, cultural or financial.

Audience

Individuals and groups who make use of the museum’s resources or facilities.

Collection

A body of cultural and heritage material. Collections may be physical, intangible or digital.

Collections development policy

An internal policy document which shapes a museum’s collections by guiding acquisition and disposal, and is led by the museum’s statement of purpose.

Community

A group of individuals who share a particular characteristic, set of beliefs or attitudes.

Dealing

Making a speculative acquisition with the intention of reselling for profit.

Due diligence

Ensuring that all reasonable measures are taken to establish the facts of a case before deciding a course of action, particularly in identifying the source and history of an item offered for acquisition or use before acquiring it, or in understanding the full background of a sponsor, lender or funder.

Governing body

The principal body of individuals in which rests the ultimate responsibility for policy and decisions affecting the governance of the museum. Legal title to the assets of the museum may be vested in this body.

Item

A physical, non-tangible or digital object or material held by a museum.

Partner organisation

An organisation with which a museum has built up a formal relationship relating to museum activities or museum funding.

Source community

A group which identifies themselves as a community and would normally be expected to have a shared geographical location, shared cultural or spiritual and religious beliefs and shared language; or to share some of these facets; and which is recognised as the cultural source of items held in a museum collection.

The ethics committee provides confidential advice on specific issues that arise in individual museums. For all ethical queries, please contact our policy manager Alistair Brown in the first instance: alistair@museumsassociation.org

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