Museum archaeologists say research charges are ethical - Museums Association

Museum archaeologists say research charges are ethical

Lack of specialist curators biggest threat to access, SMA survey finds
Patrick Steel
The Society for Museum Archaeology (SMA) does not believe that it is unethical for museums to charge for research.

The SMA set out its position in a statement released today in response to a statement by the Prehistoric Society in March that branded charges for research as "ethically wrong".

"The SMA committee agrees with the principle that museums which hold collections on behalf of the public should endeavour to make them available for research purposes free of charge," the SMA said in the statement.

"It is a fact, however, that providing access to collections, whether they are in store or on public display, is a service that does not come without a cost.

"The SMA committee does not believe… that it is unethical for museums to recover the cost of transporting collections that go out for study purposes, nor for curators to make a charge for undertaking specific pieces of lengthy detailed research for individual projects that should be undertaken by the researchers themselves."

The SMA's survey also found that "no more than a handful of institutions across the whole of the UK are making any charges at all and where this does happen only in extremis, or to reflect real costs incurred in doing so".

The SMA’s members found that the greatest threat to access “has rather more to do with the ever-dwindling numbers of specialist curators employed in museums and serious underfunding”, something that the Prehistoric Society’s statement also raised as a serious issue.

Gail Boyle, the SMA's chairwoman, said: "The members of our committee come from across the UK and the general feeling amongst the committee, backed up by the respondents to the survey, was that charging was not a widespread practice.

"The principle is that wherever possible we would not charge, but we know of museums that recharge for costs incurred and it is a question of understanding the context of any charges.

"The lack of staff and specialist knowledge is the biggest block to access as without that knowledge you can't unlock the things in your stores."

Alistair Brown, the Museums Association’s policy officer, said: “The statement reflects the difficult times that some museums find themselves in. The Museums Association’s Ethics Committee has discussed these issues in the past, but would not generally provide judgements in such cases.”

4pm, 29.04.2015

Article updated to include comment from Gail Boyle.

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