Is it ethical for museums not to collect?

Rebecca Atkinson, 09.10.2014
Museum ethics debated at Conference
The issue of whether museums that don’t collect are acting unethically was discussed in a session on the Museums Association’s review of the code of ethics.

Ethics – are they fit for the new world order? was a panel discussion at the conference in Cardiff chaired by Jocelyn Dodd, director of the research centre for museums and galleries at the University of Leicester.

The session examined what a revised code of ethics might look like.

David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool, said there were many factors that made a review of the code necessary, including museums being more audience-aware and accountable than ever before; changes to the workforce; new communications technology; and cuts to public sector budgets.

“We need to think really carefully about the way we work and the way we think about what we do,” he said. “We want to ensure the code remains, in this pressured world, the indicator of proper processes of museum behaviour.”

The panel members discussed the importance of museums continuing to collect, but also acknowledging that there is a bias in collecting that, while not a bad thing in itself, must not lead to self-censorship or distorted collections.

Other ethical issues raised in the session included whether museums should work with countries who discriminate against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

The high-profile case of Northampton Council selling an Egyptian statue was also discussed, and Fleming said it was important to be aware of public opinion relating to the sale of objects.

As well as what the code should cover, delegates contributed their views on the process of the review, the language used and the relationship between the law and ethics.

Nick Merriman, the director of Manchester Museum, said: “A written code is a way of thinking about ethics, so we shouldn’t see this document as an end but the beginning of the process.”