The Museums Association (MA) has begun an consultation into the scope of its code of ethics for museums.
Following its decision to focus policy on Museums Change Lives, which advocates an impact-based approach, the MA’s board agreed that the code of ethics needed to be revisited with a view to widening its focus beyond collections.
David Fleming, the director of National Museums Liverpool and chairman of the MA’s ethic’s committee, stresses that the association will continue its work on the ethics of collections management, but that the consultation is a chance to build on that work and to consider the ethics of the social role that the modern museum is now widely expected to play.
The consultation was launched in April at an MA members’ meeting held at Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery. It will be the main subject of discussion at the first meeting of the MA’s newly constituted ethics committee next month.
Janet Marstine, one of the new members of the committee and the academic director of the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies, was principal investigator for an Arts & Humanities Research Council networking grant from 2011-2013, looking at ways of embedding ethical thinking in the museum sector.
She says codes have a role to play, but are just one of several ethics tools alongside values, principles and inter-disciplinary case studies.
Marstine adds that ethics have moved on from a reactive “do no harm” stance to a more interventionist, proactive model in which museums have a wider responsibility and a sense of moral agency.
As Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales director and MA president David Anderson puts it: “It is not enough that we can do something. There is an obligation to remove barriers to participation and access.”
So what form might a revised code take? Marstine thinks it might prioritise social relations as much as collections.
Maggie Appleton, chief executive of Luton Culture and MA board member, says that a new code could encompass a range of broader issues such as whether a museum should close early to accommodate private hire, for example.
Nick Merriman, director of the Manchester Museum and a committee member, suggests it might address audience mix, sustainability and commercial activities.
But museum ethics should be about more than just the code, he adds. Rather, they should be formed through a dynamic process of dialogue and debate informed by real-life examples.
Marstine adds that we should recognise that ethics are not just the domain of experts, and that all of us make ethical decisions every day, so a larger range of staff and even the wider community can be involved in co-creating an organisation’s ethics policy.
There are resource implications for a revised scheme along these lines, but Anderson thinks that one possible way of operating could be along the lines of the American Alliance of Museums’ accreditation scheme, in which museums are peer-reviewed on criteria including an organisation’s public service role, collections management, governance and management. If these standards are not maintained, a museum’s accreditation can be withdrawn.
Fleming adds that the MA would not make any changes lightly, as any revisions that are made to the code of ethics would have international ramifications.
- See this month's policy column
The MA’s evolving ethics
October 2001 A code of ethics is adopted at the MA’s agm. It replaces the 1996 code of conduct for people who work in museums and a 1994 code of practice for governing bodies.
June 2007 MA consults on revisions to the code of ethics.
October 2007 Members vote to change the code to allow financially motivated disposal in specific circumstances.
November 2012 Nick Merriman, a member of the MA ethics committee, calls for there to be a process-based approach to ethics, which would be shaped by economic, social and technological factors.
April 2014 The MA begins a sector-wide consultation into proposals to widen the scope of the code of ethics to include museums’ relationships with their audiences.