Museum governance has been in the spotlight recently with resignations from boards and allegations of government interference in the running of institutions. This makes it a timely moment to consider what good governance looks like and what role the trustees of our museums should be playing.
Good governance should not only welcome a diversity of opinion, it should be rooted in a diversity of people. The boards of our museums are too often monocultural spaces that lack diversity and recruit to type. For our museums to welcome a range of audiences and tell a variety of new and engaging stories, boards need to be more diverse and more representative of our communities.
Simple measures such as committing to openly advertising in the right places, transparent and supportive recruitment, demystifying the process and the role, and being welcoming, can help. We can also learn from organisations that have acted to widen the net, such as Glasgow Women’s Library, whose Pathway Programme opens the way for volunteers to join its board.
As the chair of the Museum of Homelessness and a trustee of the Thackray Museum of Medicine and the European Museum Forum, I know that trustees have clear statutory duties including oversight and scrutiny, setting strategic direction and managing and mitigating risk. But for me, a trustee’s critical role is in ensuring that museums are carrying out their purposes for public benefit and living up to their institutional values.
This means using the mission, vision and values of the organisation as a starting point. Values-based leadership begins at board level and should include a commitment to public benefit and diversity throughout the organisation.
At the Museums Association (MA), we are lucky to have a diverse and committed board of trustees, most of whom are elected by our membership. Our trustees have wide sector knowledge, are committed to the success of the MA and add immeasurable value to the work that we do for our members and the wider sector. They hold us to account and challenge us when appropriate, but they also get what we are trying to achieve and champion our collective values.
The Code of Ethics for Museums is also an invaluable framework for supporting good governance. Its three principles – public benefit and engagement, stewardship of collections, and individual and institutional integrity – apply just as much to trustees as they do to everyone who works in and with museums. The code can support ethical decision-making at board level and I’ve seen it put to use on issues ranging from disposal to decolonisation.
Dealing with so-called “difficult” and “contested” history, avoiding interference from vested interests and making decisions about offers of sponsorship are all contemporary ethical challenges for trustees. Using the Code of Ethics, opening up dialogue with communities, and encouraging and respecting a range of opinions can help us meet these challenges.
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Sharon Heal is the director of the Museums Association