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.

 

Debate: Should museums charge for entry? #museumhour

Update:

This debate has now happened. You can explore it on Storify.

Essential info:

On 11 April at 20:00 BST (UK time) Museum Hour is debating the thorny and loaded question of entry charges for museums.

We are helping the Association of Independent Museums (AIM) with their crucial research on this issue which is primarily being conducted through a sector-wide survey: The Impact of Charging Museum Admission. The deadline for taking part is 11 April as well but AIM may extend this by a couple of days following the #museumhour debate.

The research is being undertaken by DC Research and also in partnership with Arts Council England and also supported by the Welsh Assembly Government.

Museum Hour will Storify the debate shortly afterwards and the interactions will feed into the broader research into the question of museum admission charges.

Go straight to the museum charging survey.

There is a lot of misinformation about museums and entry charges, and a lot of misunderstanding within the sector and its audiences. Free museum entry to UK Nationals is pretty much the only manifesto pledge you will see on most political parties’ agendas that have much to do with museums in society. Is there a sense that the expectation of free entry confuses some museum visitors who hesitate when confronted with an admission fee–not helped by national radio DJs proclaiming that “we have to keep our museums free.” Lines could also be blurred with the socially-defining issue of library closure.

Echoing the social worth and function of their museums many Local Authority museums have supported free entry as a way to embed their role in their communities but in the Age of Austerity several museums face pressure to introduce entry charges to improve their income streams against a backdrop of falling and failing grants–that’s if they aren’t facing total closure.

Of course there is the huge (majority) independent museum sector for whom income from admission fees is a strategically crucial part of their sustainability and have happily charged for years without being at odds with their moral and social contract with society. Some have also gone free having seen that entry charging was limiting their work and also their resilience.

The national press has picked up on this issue, including the Financial Times. Sector commentators have put their views forward on this topic. The Museums Association has come out strongly in favour of defending free entry to civic museums. Civic museums are not well-defined in their context (except as Local Authority museums which used to be free) — another facet to this debate that needs better engagement.

On the other hand those running successful independent museums who are fully engaged in their commercial and market viability present a slightly different view. This Apollo Feature on museum charging contains both views.

This is a very complex and confusing picture which will not result in one answer that all museums can apply. But to have the starting point of good, solid research can only be a good thing to help the museum sector understand how it is they are seen by society and what society expects from us.

It is incredible to think that proper research on this fundamental issue for museums has not already happened. As the UK Government in its recent Culture White Paper announced it is going to review museums (which ones, how and why as yet undetermined) I cannot think of a more crucial issue for Whitehall and politicians to engage with than how museums are perceived by their communities, and the visitors to those communities, and surely the question of who pays and at what point is basic to this understanding?

Here is a taster of some of the questions and provocations that we are chairing on the night. We will be inviting new and different questions from the floor too:

  • Are we asking the right question? Free entry museums need money from somewhere so should museum funding change?
  • If people expect to pay for tickets to the cinema, theatre and football, why not museums and galleries?
  • Is museum charging a practical funding problem or an ethical and moral issue? And whose problem is it?
  • Free at the point of use? Do museums’ ethical responsibilities towards its communities mean #museumcharge becomes a barrier?
  • Do you charge entry for everyone? Which categories of visitor go free?
  • As a museum and gallery visitor, are you more likely to visit a free museum than one that charges?

Ethics: Is it acceptable to use illicit material for academic research?

This ethics question was originally posed by Caitlin Griffiths of the Museums Association in September 2006. I was undertaking continuing professional development for my AMA (Associateship of the Museums Association) at the time and felt, with my role in both academic research and heritage, that I had strong views on the subject. My response was published in the October 2006 issue of Museums Journal. I was also undertaking my PhD at the time.

Question: Although it is clearly unacceptable to acquire or display illicit material, is it acceptable to use this material for academic research?

Originally published in: Comment (ethics): ‘Although it is clearly unacceptable to acquire or display illicit material, is it acceptable to use this material for academic research?’, Museums Journal, 105 (10) (October 2006).

My response

If it is morally unacceptable for a museum to acquire and display
illicit objects then it is likewise unacceptable to conduct academic
research on them. If the tide of ‘trade’ in illegally acquired
objects is to be stopped, or at least allayed, then researchers and
universities must unequivocally take the ethical higher ground. There
is no reason why academic research needs to be carried out at any
cost, devoid of any social and political (small ‘p’) responsibilities.
Academic institutions and museums should, in any case, work more
closely together than they currently seem to. Those who have, have
shown how academic research can help trace the rightful location of a
cultural artefact, whether a painting spoliated during World War II
(1939-45) or ancient funerary objects from an Iraqi museum. This may
be the only case for allowing scholars to work on certain objects of
known or suspected illegal origin. Even humanities academic research these days
requires commitments to certain ethical standards by funding bodies.
If it is not already, I suggest that funding bodies join the cause of
putting an end to the trade in illegally-acquired artefacts by
requiring a commitment from academics to report suspect material to
its holding institution and omit them from their research programmes
altogether.

Tehmina Goskar
Centre for Antiquity and the Middle Ages
University of Southampton