Janet Marstine (L); Heather Broughton (R)

The conversation

Janet Marstine; Heather Broughton, 01.07.2014
What are the priorities for a new ethical code?
Heather Broughton is a heritage consultant with a special interest in equalities and human rights; Janet Marstine is the academic director and programme director, art museum and gallery studies, at the University of Leicester

Dear Janet:

If we agree that increasing access and participation, and reducing economic and social deprivation, underpin our core values, then it is undeniable that the code of ethics should broaden its focus.

The sector has, generally speaking, equated “ethics” with the behaviour of governing bodies in managing museum collections, particularly financially motivated disposal. We need a code that reflects current challenges and context, and embraces the ethics of our social role.

Best wishes, Heather

Dear Heather:


I agree that the code should broaden its remit to provide guidance on museums’ ethical responsibilities to their publics and on the cultural rights of individuals and groups.

This shift would not be to the detriment of collections; by focusing on the complex relationships between people and objects, it would enhance ethical practice concerning both. I also suggest we need to rethink how a code of ethics might function.

Too often, codes are founded on a passive “do no harm” position that does not acknowledge the opportunities available for museums to work for the common good.

Best wishes, Janet

Dear Janet:

A new code should be jargon free and accessible for our communities, volunteers and staff. There is a fundamental question about our approach to the (in)equity of funding allocations and how that might be realigned.

To support the cultural rights of communities, particularly in areas of greatest need, a new code will need to recognise these social priorities as a prerequisite for a conversation with major funding bodies.

Best wishes, Heather

Dear Heather:

The process of drafting the code is as important as the final product. This process should be defined by shared ownership with a diverse range of stakeholders. The process should also prioritise transparency, making clear the values and agendas that might shape a new code.

I would also hope that a new code might be understood as a living, breathing document to be routinely considered and revised to anticipate and respond effectively to the shifting economic, technological, political and social landscape.

Best wishes, Janet

Dear Janet:

The implementation of the code should be measured. There could be an aspect of Accreditation or of external funding applications that links to this; institutions showing how they work with non-experts, how they harness the power of local campaign groups and work with them to reinforce the community value of museums.

Early and effective assessments of equalities and human rights, and their impacts can, by creating connections, give museums the best chance of mitigating any adverse changes as they respond to new environments.

Best wishes, Heather

Dear Heather:

A new code would benefit from thinking beyond the borders of UK museums. Examining inter-disciplinary case studies in medical ethics, media ethics, environmental ethics and business ethics could prove particularly productive.

A future code must also acknowledge UK museums’ responsibilities in the development of a global museum ethics code that negotiates the tensions between universal values of human rights and local, culturally determined ethical practices.

Collaborating with other organisations internationally is an important step towards this goal.

Best wishes, Janet


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