Launching the code

Alistair Brown, 26.01.2016
Solving ethical dilemmas with the revised Code of Ethics
After over a year of build-up it was gratifying to finally have a printed copy of the Code of Ethics in hand last week.

A rather sleek “handbag size” (according to the designers!), the new code is a streamlined document – smaller, clearer and more easily digestible than its predecessor.

It focuses on the three key principles of museum ethics: public benefit and engagement; stewardship of collections; and individual and institutional integrity.

With these principles in hand, and the guidance and case studies on the MA website, museum professionals should be well prepared to make ethical decision-making part of their regular approach to work, rather than as a last resort after things have already taken a turn for the worse.

I was in Edinburgh for the first launch event of the Code of Ethics last week, where we discussed how these principles would be used in practice, and how managers, curators and learning and outreach staff could balance competing ethical demands.

It only took us an hour or so to work through a range of different ethical dilemmas at the event. Using the new code as a starting point, we came up with fresh ideas about how to cope with slimy sponsors, tricky trustees and dubious displays – not bad for a Wednesday afternoon.

This method seemed all the more appropriate following the wise words of introduction from Xerxes Mazda, the director of collections at National Museums Scotland, who observed that reflecting on ethical issues in conversation with others is the only way to resolve the tricky issues that we sometimes face.

It seems to me that the payoff from taking a short amount of time out of our day-to-day tasks to discuss some of our ethical “big issues” is potentially huge.

It’s very easy to sacrifice the ethical in favour of the practical, and to create problems for the future. It is surely far better, in the long-term, to take some time to understand the principles of the code and work through issues with a network of support.

Print copies of the Code of Ethics will be distributed with all copies of Museums Journal in February and will also be available at MA events and Members’ Meetings.

The MA will hold launch events for the Code of Ethics in Cardiff on 12 February and in London (date TBC).


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30.01.2016, 22:01
As Chris Wood’s comment identifies, the content is short and vague. But, it is difficult to argue with the general sentiment behind the bulleted statements.
With regards to Alistair Brown’s response, I’m happy that the MA Policy Officer believes that the public have the right to freedom of expression.
However, I would suggest that Mr Brown, Mr Wood and Museums Association take a brief look at my blog, which they may find of interest...
Chris Wood
MA Member
27.01.2016, 19:10
I was quite shocked when I saw the revised Code of Ethics. It is so short that much of the important content has either been made so vague it's unhelpful or has been removed entirely. It contains very little of real use any more. The place to go for real guidance is now the ICOM code, not that of the MA.

Furthermore, it is simply not the same code that was consulted on in the summer. Had I seen it in time for proxy votes to be submitted for the AGM, I would have voted against it.

Yet some things have been kept in unchanged. Has anyone else noticed the glaring conflict that is now even highlighted by mirrored paragraph numbers?

1.3 states: "Support free speech and freedom of expression. Respect the right of all to express different views within the museum unless illegal to do so or inconsistent with the purpose of the museum as an inclusive public space."

Yet, 3.1 admonishes: "Avoid any private activity or pursuit of a personal interest that may conflict or be perceived to conflict with the public interest."

So, freedom of speech and expression unless someone might perceive it to conflict with "the public interest"? And whose perception counts - a fundamentalist Christian, or indeed a fundamentalist atheist, perhaps? Aren't we supposed to be encouraging diversity in the museums sector?

This radically revised code is bowdlerized, yet contains conflicting messages, and was not given proper consultation. All in all, one has to question the validity of the document.
Alistair Brown
MA Member
Policy Officer, Museums Association
28.01.2016, 10:15
I'm sorry to hear that you are unhappy with the new Code. As you know, it was subject to an 18-month consultation process which allowed us to speak with people from across the sector. The new Code reflects many of the points we heard during that process. The majority of people wanted a shorter Code which was easier to use, with additional guidance available elsewhere (this guidance has been published here: )

As regards your point about paragraphs 1.3 and 3.1, there should be no conflict between the museum supporting the public right to freedom of expression, and the responsibility of staff and trustees to refrain from putting themselves in a position of conflict of interest.
Chris Wood
MA Member
29.01.2016, 11:02
I accept that a majority of those who commented on the draft may have asked for a shorter code, but 1) why didn't they say so before that draft was produced and 2) given that the final version was so radically different from the draft, it should, ethically, have been subject to the same consultation as the earlier draft - if only because people are less likely to comment if they agree with what is proposed. The fact is it was rushed out just before the AGM with no real option to comment, unless you were one of those self-selected few who were able and motivated enough to attend the conference.

On the subject of 1.3 vs. 3.1, what you have written is fine, but that is NOT what the code says. 3.1 may have been meant to say what you have said, but its actual wording serves to support charges against people for allegedly bringing their museum into disrepute because a manager or politician, who is bigoted or has an axe to grind, objects to perfectly legal personal interests and activities.