Ethics Q&A with Maggie Appleton

Rebecca Atkinson, 24.09.2014
Head of Luton Culture on museum ethics
Maggie Appleton, the chief executive of Luton Culture and a member of the Museums Association (MA) board, is part of a panel discussion at the MA conference in Cardiff examining what museums need from the code of ethics in light of policies such as Museums Change Lives.

The panel, which also include Manchester Museum’s Nick Merriman, is asking for people to send in ethical questions and dilemmas about collections, access and use, social justice and cuts in advance.

The MA is reviewing its code of ethics in 2014-15 to ensure that museums remain relevant and effective in serving contemporary society.

Why is the Museums Association reviewing the code of ethics?

In the foreword to the current code of ethics, Vanessa Trevelyan reminds us that it must constantly evolve. And that, rather than only being consulted in the event of an ethical emergency (which it has been required for all too frequently recently), it should give confidence to the public and support museums in day-to-day decision making.

The seismic changes of the last six years demand a fresh appraisal of its contents in order for it to continue to perform as the internationally respected code that it is.  

Ensuring that museums continue to serve contemporary society underpins the Museums Change Lives policy focus over the next three years, and the MA will review the code of ethics to ensure that it remains a relevant and effective guide.

Have you had any ethical dilemmas at Luton Culture?

We’ve recently had pressure to amend our sustainability plans by a wealthy and influential neighbour of one of our museums fearing noise and disturbance. Do we bow to that pressure and compromise our income generating opportunities or do we continue and risk upsetting a powerful local voice?

This was a very different ethical dilemma to my first as an assistant curator more than 20 years ago, when a councillor brought back a poorly preserved (that is, rotting!) boar’s head from a visit to a twin town in eastern Europe and tried to bully us into taking it into the collection.

How can people help shape the discussion?

Members have already contributed at members’ meetings and through online discussions, and we’re asking people to keep feeding into this conversation. We’re also inviting those coming to Cardiff to join our session and we want people to share their ethical questions and dilemmas with us in advance.

Ethics – are they fit for the new world order? takes place on 9 October at 3-4pm at the MA conference in Cardiff. Share your ethical questions and dilemmas by commenting on this article or emailing


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Maggie Appleton
MA Member
Chief Executive, Luton Culture
06.10.2014, 19:50

Over the last ten years the MA has been regularly producing salary guidelines with the intention that the sector uses them to pay a fair wage. The next iteration will be published in 2015-16.
The MA should be absolutely leading the way on pay by paying its own people appropriately. We’ve recently undertaken independent comparator research for posts at the MA and compared them to similar organisations (charities and membership organisations based in London) and found that the pay is in the median range but no higher.

MA Member
26.09.2014, 20:28
I wish the MA would address the ethics of paying museum staff a decent salary. How is it okay for museums to request a wealth of experience and qualifications and yet offer a salary of around £13,000. In what way is this ethical? Currently the MA is advertising a job for an admin person where the pay is more than the vast majority of us in the lower rungs of the museum sector earns. Over the past 10 years I have seen in the Museums Journal articles that say this needs to be addressed.Yet nothing has changed. If MA really want social justice and ethics look closer to home first and tackle the low pay so prevalent in the museum sector. When pay is this low how can the MA be surprised that people from different social and ethnic groups do not enter the sector. I personally would not encourage anyone to work in a museum with the way current pay levels are.