Alistair Brown is the Policy officer at the Museums Association. Here he outlines the current situation faced by UK museums, and how the brand new Code of Ethics reflects this.
A couple of years ago, the MA commissioned some market research into the perception of museums. The results suggested that museums are uniquely trusted organisations. While politicians, the banks and the press have seen their levels of public trust plummet, museums have retained their position as respected public institutions. Is it possible that one day we could we see a museum follow where the bankers and politicians have led – into the abyss of public shame?
One has to believe so. Recent incidents, such as the selling off of a veteran’s war medals on eBay, or the influence that Shell had over the content of the Climate Gallery at the Science Museum, have served to put museums in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. And while such incidents remain isolated, they serve to demonstrate the need for a strong ethical, values-based approach to museum practice.
Museums have a complex network of responsibilities to different stakeholders – funders, donors, source communities and the public, to name a few. Navigating these responsibilities requires good policies and decision-making, and careful reflection and consultation. Underpinning all museum activity is the Code of Ethics for Museums, which sets out the general consensus of those across the sector on how museums and those who work in them should behave.
The Code has existed since the 1970s, and has recently undergone an 18-month review to establish an updated set of principles that are fit for our time. This review asked key questions about what a Code of Ethics should help the sector to achieve in the coming years: How can we protect museum collections in times of financial crisis? How can museums maintain their editorial integrity in the face of outside interference? How can museums source finance in a way that that doesn’t compromise their values?
The outcome is a new Code which was agreed at the Museums Association AGM in Birmingham in November. It clarifies and reaffirms much of the sector’s traditional ethics by focusing on three key principles: Public Benefit and Engagement; Stewardship of Collections; and Individual and Institutional Integrity. This simplification marks a step-change from its bulky, 10 chapter predecessor.
The new Code is different in other ways: it explicitly supports the role of the museum as a forum for free speech and debate; it defends museum’s editorial integrity; and it requires museums to seek ethical sources of sponsorship. Hopefully, these changes will help those working in museums to set clear boundaries for stakeholders, and allow them to retain and build the trust that museums enjoy.
But publication of the new Code is only the beginning of the process. We want to continue the conversation about museum ethics and ensure that ethical principles are applicable in the real world. We’re holding the official launch event for the new code at the Wellcome Collection on Friday 22nd April, where you’ll be able to hear from senior commentators and museum professionals, participate in an ethics training session and ask your own questions about museum ethics. We would love to see you there.
The new Code of Ethics and Guidance are available here
Register for the Launch Event at the Wellcome Collection on 22nd April here