New Museum Code of Ethics well-timed for struggling local museums

Posted on: February 17, 2016 by

UK museums now have a revised Code of Ethics to guide them through the ethical dilemmas they encounter on a daily basis. The new Code, which updates the 2007 version, was approved at the Museum Association’s (MA’s) Annual General Meeting last November following an 18 month consultation.

The new Code is more succinct than its predecessors, focussing on three key areas: public engagement and public benefit; stewardship of collections; and individual and institutional integrity. Within each area, broad principles are espoused, backed up by additional guidance notes and case studies on the MA’s website.  While, by its own admission, the Code “cannot contain all the answers to the ethical issues that museums face” it aims to guide decision-making on thorny matters such as freedom of expression, acquisitions and disposals, conflicts of interest and sponsorship.

For many smaller, local museums, a clear ethical steer could not have come at a more opportune moment, given the practical pressures they face as a result of funding cuts. There is reported to have been a 28% reduction in cultural spending by Local Authorities since 2010, and while the recent Government Spending Review (November 2015) brought some positive news for national institutions (standstill budgets rather than reductions for Arts Council England and national museums), the vast majority of the UK’s 2500+ local museums fall outside of this and many face yet more cuts.

The MA’s latest ‘Cut’s Survey’ (published last month and based on responses from 115 museums provided in autumn 2015) reports worrying key findings including that:

  • 18% of respondents had closed part of their museum or its branches to the public in the past year or would do so in the coming year;
  • 8% had introduced charging over the past year, and 12% would do so in the coming year;
  • 11% are considering selling items in their collections to raise funds in the coming year.

Statue_of_Sekhemka_1950s-183x300 (1)These murmurings of ‘rationalising’ collections either to raise funds directly or to save costs are worrying indeed. Financial pressures have undoubtedly weighed heavily in controversial deaccessioning decisions over recent years. The sorry tale of the Sekhemka Statue, a rare Ancient Egyptian artefact dating from 2500 BC, sold by Northampton Borough Council for £15.76 million in 2014, is perhaps the most well-known example. The consequences for the Council have been grave, and it is hoped that the new Code will focus minds and help museums to steer a safer course through the murky waters of ethical decision-making going forward.


Photo: “Statue of Sekhemka 1950s” by Bibilovski – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA