Who Decides What’s Ethical?

Debating modern ethics

Discussing the Ethics Review at the Museums Association Conference, 2014

There’s been a lot of debate in the press about museums selling objects from their collection and if it is okay for them to do so. You’ll have heard quotes from the museum sector saying that the sale of a certain Egyptian statue was “unethical”, but what does that mean? Who decides what is ethical and what do they know about the reality of running a museum? And surely any “Code of Ethics” is aimed at the big national or local authority museums and doesn’t apply to small, volunteer-run museums?

Actually, the Code of Ethics applies to everyone working or volunteering in a UK museum. This is particularly true if your museum is Accredited or might like to be in the future. The current Code was produced by the Museums Association in 2002 after consultation to represent what the sector believed an ethical way of running a museum.

The Code of Ethics is now 13 years old and while it reflected the needs of museums at the start of this millennium, the world has moved on. We’re using digital technology more than ever, including collecting digital artefacts like photographs and sharing our collections and data via the internet. Objects aren’t just acquired through donations and traditional auctions but through sites like eBay. Museums are increasingly working collaboratively with volunteers, artists, vulnerable communities and children, raising issues of copyright, recognition and expectation management. Debates rage in the media about the living wage and zero-hours contracts. Corporations are sponsoring exhibitions, projects and entire museums. With cuts to their basic funding, many museums are under increasing pressure to sell their collection in order to plug budget gaps – their own and those of their parent organisation.

Museums in 2015 are very different to those of 2002, and the Museums Association recognises this. That’s why they’re asking for your opinions. They’ve held regional meetings (some of you will have attended the meeting at Colchester Castle last year), hosted debates at their annual conference and are currently running an online consultation. If you have an opinion on any of these issues, or others that I haven’t touched on, please do take part. It doesn’t matter if you think the current rules are too strict or not strict enough – share your view! This is your opportunity to be heard. If you don’t take the time to answer these 24 questions, you can’t complain that only the voices of “big” museums are heard.

The Museums Association Ethics Consultation is open until Friday 13th February.

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