The policy column

Museum ethics and the court of public opinion
Alistair Brown
The Victoria and Albert Museum withdraws a piece of Islamic art depicting the prophet Muhammad from its website.

The Natural History Museum prevents a couple wearing onesies from entering the building.

Tate Modern allows its galleries to be used in a promotional film for a luxury apartment block in London where properties are selling for up to £23m.

These are just some of the examples that spring to mind of ethical issues in museums that have made the news since the beginning of the year.

Even if the word “ethics” doesn’t set the pulse racing, there can be no doubt that museum ethics is a topical issue and something that the public is quick to engage with – not least when a museum is judged to have made the wrong decision in the court of public opinion.

This is why responding to public expectations of what a museum should do is vitally important. The stories I have mentioned here debunk any notion that museum ethics has only to do with collections care and disposal. For the public, issues of trust, access, equality and freedom of expression are just as important.

That’s one of the reasons why the Museums Association is spending 2015 revising its code of ethics for the first time since 2007.

The code should balance public expectations and good stewardship of collections, and also act as a practical guide to help museums navigate the varied range of relationships that they have with the public.

Alistair Brown is the policy officer at the Museums Association

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