MA president David Fleming at the annual general meeting

Revised Code of Ethics approved at AGM

Nicola Sullivan, 05.11.2015
The new code aims to reignite debate around ethics
The Museums Association’s (MA) revised Code of Ethics has been approved at the Annual General Meeting, which took place today during its annual conference and exhibition in Birmingham.

The code, which was passed unanimously without objection, outlines three main principles: public engagement and public benefit; stewardship of collections; and individual and institutional integrity.

Addressing delegates attending the meeting, the MA’s director Sharon Heal said one of the key purposes of the new code was to reignite and broaden the debate around ethics.

She said: “Ethics does permeate a lot of our decision-making at a personal and organisational level. We started [revising the code] with very clear aspirations. The Museums Association and the Ethics Committee wanted to have a collaborative transparent process.

“We also said we wanted to look at the context in which we operate. What are the outside factors that affect our decision making? We also wanted a practical and user-friendly code. We encountered a lot of people working in the sector who hadn’t read the code since they were on their museums studies course and used it as a document of last resort.”

During the meeting there were concerns raised about the new code with museums consultant Hilary McGowan arguing that there was a lack of clarity over its guidance on financially-motivated disposal. The code stipulates that museums should not undertake disposal for financial reasons except in cases where it will significantly improve the long-term public benefit derived from the remaining collection.

In response to McGowan’s concerns Heal said: “We have only slightly changed the wording of the disposal section because we feel that it hasn’t been properly tested yet. We worked very closely with Arts Council England and other partners to go through it line-by-line and world-by-word and to test it against some previous examples of financially motivated disposal. I think it has to be tested in the future as well. I think what we have learned from this whole process is that the code cannot exist for 12 years without updates and reviews.”

Steve Miller, the head of Norfolk Museums Service said: "In these challenging and fast moving times, the MA's Code of Ethics for Museums and the MA's leadership in this vital arena has never been more important."

"I was really pleased to take part in the discussions and development of a new draft Code of Ethics and support this new succinct code. The attempt to both simplify and focus the code into a much more compact and accessible 'go to' document can only be a good thing," said Nigel Blackamore, the senior curator at Brecknock Museum & Art Gallery.

"The revised code is clearly much more accessible to all, from those who work and volunteer in museums, to the public and those outside the sector. In its more concentrated state it provides clear and practical guidance to support museums in their decision making," said Jemma Conway, the MA's Yorkshire rep and community heritage curator at Barnsley Museums.

Diane Lees, the chair of the National Museum Directors' Council (NMDC), said: "The NMDC welcomes the revised Code of Ethics. The revised Code of Ethics is clear and concise, and provides an invaluable reference for all museum staff, volunteers, trustees, officials and politicians as they seek to maintain high standards and public trust in museums."

Tamalie Newbury, the executive director of the Association of Independent Museums (AIM), said: "AIM endorses the three core principles established at the beginning of the new Code of Ethics. The three principles provide a clear basis upon which all those involved with museums can rely to underpin their decisions and actions as ethical museum organisations. AIM recommends these principles to its members, and recommends that boards of trustees should consider adopting the principles as part of moving towards achieving the AIM Hallmarks for Prospering Museums.

"The clarification of these principles, and the simplification of the associated guidance is a big improvement on the former MA Code. AIM has appreciated the collaborative manner in which the MA has worked with us and other organisations to ensure the principles are relevant and useful for all types and sizes of museum."

Sarah Philp, the head of programmes at the Art Fund, said: “I welcome the MA’s revised Code of Ethics. The focus and clarity of this important document means that it will, I am sure, become a touchstone for museums and help us all as a sector to navigate through both the challenges and opportunities ahead.”

Scott Furlong, the director of collections and cultural property at the Arts Council, said: "Museums and those who work in them are in a position of great trust. The Code of Ethics has a vital role in helping each of us to navigate our responsibilities with confidence, knowing that our values and views are underpinned by a shared consensus about what it means to do the right thing.

"In this revision, they have been sharpened and focussed so that each of us can use them on a daily basis. We must embrace them fully so that we continue to deserve this long-held public trust."

Joanne Orr, the chief executive of Museums Galleries Scotland, said: “I commend the MA for undertaking such a rigorous consultation to develop the revised Code of Ethics. Museums Galleries Scotland welcomed the opportunity to input and I encourage MA members to vote in support of the proposed changes.”

Morag Macpherson, the cultural operations and development manager at Renfrewshire Council, said: "I think the complexity of the ethical landscape has been encapsulated really well by the revised draft Code of Ethics. It reflects the evolving role of museums, and provides clear and practical guidance to support museums in their decision making.

"The more focussed and streamlined format also supports museums in communicating their ethical responsibilities to stakeholders and their wider community. It feels like there is a good balance of support, guidance and direction, and that this code will actively be used to negotiate dilemmas by all involved in museums."


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29.01.2016, 18:10
So there is a new Code of Ethics ! I still have to download it and go through it carefully but I will comment on the coverage in the Museums Journal as well as Chris Wood's comments:
1) does this Code have teeth ? I doubt it and after the "victory" of Northampton Borough Council's sale of Sekhemka - via the museum of course - all other museums run by Local Authorities will take no notice of this; they will do as they are told by the LA if it is a question of less money from the LA or steady money plus the hoped for auction profit - being Accredited or not will be of no significance;
2) Chris Wood's remarks re the seeming diffuse meaning of the two paragraphs concerning freedom of expression - they are woolly, and as Chris says, any local politician or LA civil servant will use underhand or nasty tactics to silence an inconvenient volunteer (as in my case - I still cannot volunteer at Northampton's museums) or employee whatever the Code says and are likely to take it apart with the help of their in-house legal team.

BY all means use the ICOM code though that does not seem to have any teeth either - at least not for rapid results.

As I have said before WHERE were the great and the good of the museum world when we needed you in the Sekhemka fight ?
Chris Wood
MA Member
18.11.2015, 14:43
I was quite shocked by the reduction in length of the Code of Ethics - but I didn't see it until it was too late to register a proxy vote. Most of the 'meat' has gone and much more is left to interpretation. The ICOM Code now seems like the go-to document on ethics. Also, some particular points have remained in the new code from the old one, despite the consultation, that now look like they've been given greater authority, such as paragraph 3.1: avoid any private activity or pursuit of any personal interest that may conflict or be perceived to conflict with the public interest. The basic idea is sound, but it contains that weasel word "may" and, worse, whose perception counts? Yet at the same time, paragraph 1.3 exhorts us to support free speech and freedom of expression - some conflict here, surely?
11.11.2015, 15:08
I wonder if this will include ' ethics' when regarding the employment of part time casual staff.. in particular those on zero hours contracts with no security .. people are being used to do exactly the same job as contract staff in a particular role, but having no rewards for loyalty, enthusiasm, punctuality or commitment and general ability to do the job.. being dropped from the rota at a particular time that is cleverly under 2 years,then ' recruiting' every 6 months for new untrained people to fill the roles that the previous people were doing perfectly well. Makes no sense, and is causing a lot of low morale and general unhappiness at my institution, and a feeling of 'casuals', no matter how dedicated, being disposable staff that are not really valued at all. Also the managers that are using this recruitment method are promoting it as good practice and therefore other institutions may follow suit.. managers of other teams and most of the other staff think it is pointless and has no benefits at all recruiting in this way and would rather keep their regular casual / part time staff on long term flexible hours, which WORKS PERFECTLY! so if it wasn't broke, why ' fix' it? Its just caused a hell of a lot of bad feeling and disilllusionment. Ok more people are getting to have a go at ' working in a museum ' but with no real hope of a permanent or long term position or even any long term flexible part time hours..therefore zero security - how is this an ethical way to work? Surely they should be creating security and building a team comprised of permanent staff and loyal,regular part timers that functions efficiently and gets on well with a happy working atmosphere and a high trust of management who CARE.?
MA Member
11.11.2015, 13:48
It would appear that changed wording in the code enables a much wider acceptance of deaccession than before. Is that a) true, and b) in response to the effects of austerity measures and the general economic downtown - whereby some organizations resort to selling off objects (over fundraising)?
Alistair Brown
Policy Officer, Museums Association
11.11.2015, 16:23
Liberalising the disposal criteria was neither an objective nor a result of the review of the Code. The section on the Code relating to financially motivated disposal (2.9) maintains the existing tests around the exceptional circumstances that might lead to an ethical financially motivated disposal. Meanwhile, section 2.8 recognises the uncontroversial fact that curatorially led disposal can be part of good collections management when done in accordance with existing guidance, including the MA's Disposal Toolkit.