New Code of Ethics and what is a museum?

Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society.

Museums Association definition of a museum.

Update: The Museums Association has just issued Additional Guidance for the new Code of Ethics.

At the last AGM of the Museums Association in November 2015 in Birmingham, we (the membership delegation) voted to formally adopt the new Code of Ethics.

This revision follows several revisions since the launch of a UK-wide code of practice and conduct in 1977. Previous updates happened in 1987, 1991, 2002 and 2007, each responding to the changing social, economic and cultural contexts of museums of all shapes and sizes.

The MA’s working definition of a museum, or what a museum should be, has not changed but the emphasis on how it should behave (this is not about prescribing a set of activities or audiences) has transformed by raising the stakes on community involvement and public benefit and this is raised to headlining the Code:

Museums and those who work in and with them should:

• provide and generate accurate information for and with the public

• support freedom of speech and debate

• treat everyone equally, with honesty and respect

• actively engage and work in partnership with existing audiences and reach out to new and diverse audiences

• use collections for public benefit – for learning, inspiration and enjoyment

Read in full the New Code of Ethics, 2015.

This increased emphasis has raised some cynicism and protest from those who are uncomfortable about museums’ social function being as important as core functions (albeit they are often not defined). This MA LinkedIn debate is worth reading.

For me, the MA’s Code of Ethics is the no. 1 reason I remain a member and volunteer (as Regional Representative for the South West) for the MA. Without a sense of purpose museums are just activity centres or cafe, event and shop businesses with a gallery or two tagged on.

Collections and their stewardship for and on behalf of society is what makes a museum a museum (rather than (just) an arts venue).

As an independent consultant, supplier and contractor the Code of Ethics gives me the strength I sometimes (often) need to challenge shady, lazy or misguided goings-on in the museum world.

At the same time I challenge pejorative, if well-meaning, comments that “people are more important than objects in museums.” Such beliefs can skew the fundamental philosophy and meaning behind what a museum is.

Without a starting point of collections, and their good care, research and dissemination, you are doing a disservice to the very people you aim to engage in your museum.

The emphasis on diverse communities being fully engaged in your museum is important and is one of the fundamental standards for any museum to dispense its ‘in trust for society’ functions.

Think about it this way, if your communities and audiences grow to love your museum because they feel a sense of ownership over the collections, and the exhibitions and activities which breathe life into them, the Code of Ethics is a philosophy to guide you in that purpose.

 

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