What does the Museum Association's new publication of the Code of Ethics mean for museums?

As a commercial organisation working with museums, Vastari Group is always thinking about the ICOM Code of Ethics and ensuring that our involvement with the museums does not conflict with the mission to share and protect the public’s works. This week, it was announced that the Museums Association published the latest version of its Code of Ethics, specifically targeting museums in the UK. But I think that a read of this Code could help museums around the world, because it has been written in a very inspiring way.

There is a difference between legal and ethical issues so this document should not be seen as a definition of right and wrong in a legal sense. Of course, there are legal limitations to what museum employees may or may not do, but that is different from the ethical expectations set by the industry. Any ethical expectations or definitions do not override legal issues, but they are essential to carrying out the job correctly.

The document is all-encompassing. As the Museums Association says itself, “The code applies to members of staff, paid or unpaid, to consultants and those who work freelance, to members of museum governing bodies, and to those who work for or govern organisations that support, advise or provide services to museums, including the MA”.

What I found particularly interesting in this new code of ethics was Section 7: “Society can expect museums to: Recognise the interests of people who made, used, owned, collected or gave items in the collections”. The study of the history of collections is becoming more and more popular, and the intersection between public and private recognised. Barbara Pezzini’s Burlington Index was one example of the importance of documenting the history of collections, and provenance, for museum professionals to study worldwide. The endorsement of this important side of the museum world and its promotion helps bridge the current unreasonable divide between the private and public art sectors.

There is a clause within this section that suggests museum professionals should “Articulate clearly intentions and expectations about projects such as commissions, collaborations and workshops. Specify agreements over matters such as funding, copyright, site preparation and maintenance. Make written exhibition policies available to exhibitors”. Transparency is crucial when dealing with public collections with private individuals who may be benefactors, lenders, collaborators or patrons. The better these things are defined in advance, the less likely it is that there will be an issue. Many of us feel uncomfortable talking about money; but the sooner you bring it up as an issue, the better.

Openness is further reflected in the section on Research, describing that museums should “[m]ake information publicly accessible. Conduct research with the intention of making it public. Publish research promptly and make it widely available”. The wording of the information clearly is reflecting the shift towards open source and widely available copyright-free information - most museums are digitising their collections and some like the Rijksmuseum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are making this information usable by the general public without licensing fees.

Society is facing such a contentious time in history with polarising views developing in the Middle East, China, United States and Europe, relating to refugees, religion, economics and sustainability. At these times, it is important to share where we all come from. The code of ethics asks museums to “[r]eflect differing views striking a balance over time”. Unlike the textbooks of old that only provided a one-sided view of history, museums take part in the development of education in the 21st century, where everyone can understand the different views of important times in history and learn from past victories as well as mistakes. I wonder if this will change the wording of the British Empire’s history within British museum and education towards a more honest and clear view of its effects on peoples around the world?

Lastly section 10: Society can expect museums to review performance to innovate and improve is a section of the Code of Ethics that applies to all industries. The section starts with this statement: “Museums develop by initiating and responding to change. They establish, formally adopt, publish and regularly review their aims and objectives. Museums specify targets, monitor, evaluate and report on performance and make changes in operational practices to become more effective and efficient”. Isn’t that the definition of agile development, and a practice that is standard in the startup world?

Looking at the things highlighted in the Museum Association’s code of ethics left me inspired and enlightened, rather than the feeling of oppression or fear that previous versions could sometimes instill. Rather than reprimanding initiatives that may have adverse reactions, the MA is highlighting the behaviours and expectations of the perfect museum professional: a rewarding read. A publication of this type is just the beginning, but I can’t wait to see how this will enable disruption and partnerships within the museum profession around the country.