Ethics of socially-engaged practice

Accessibility, diversity, inclusivity, decolonisation, anti-racism, climate action, well-being, museums are not neutral, social justice, equity, are foundation themes in the huge shift underpinning the rethinking of museums and their purpose in society. But where do ethics fit in?

These are all complex ideas, each interpreted differently depending on who you talk with or listen to. Some have also been politicised to an extent that even uttering them causes discomfort and a fear of ‘getting it wrong’. Applying ethics can help navigate dilemmas without paralysing ourselves into inaction and silence, or carrying on in the safety of old ways of doing and thinking.

Applying ethics can also test motivations, are you doing a socially-engaged project simply for the reward of funding and acclamation, or because you want to foster integrity and trust in your organisational and personal culture?

What are ethics?

Anyone who has watched Netflix’s The Good Place will know something of ethics, also related to moral philosophy. The character Chidi Anagonye is Professor of Ethics and Moral Philosophy in the Afterlife comedy. Ethics were at the centre of many memorable episodes, especially the thought experiment around an impossible dilemma called ‘the trolley problem‘, in The Good Place made tangible as the Ethics Express. The show felt authentic in its exploration of ethics largely down to the input of philosophical advisers such as Todd May and Pamela Hieronymi, who appear in the series finale (and Michael Schur’s excellent writing).

Netflix’s The Good Place by Michael Schur

Ethics is only possible because we can act against our nature, based on our conscience. It stops us from simply describing what is likely to happen, and allows us to make judgements about what should happen. 

What is Ethics? The Ethics Centre, Australia.

Ethics are a set of moral principles or values that govern your thinking, actions and decision-making, or influence your everyday attitudes and behaviours. Ethics can also help define a purpose and navigate making good choices. The history of thinking about ethical behaviour, and writing about it, finds its roots in Ancient Greece and their famed philosophers such as Socrates. However ethicists exist in nearly all cultures and it is only because of the dominance of classical Western education across the globe that those from the East and Global South are less known. Zarathustra or Zoroaster, the ‘founder’ of Zoroastrianism was an ethicist because of the nature of his thinking on human behaviour in the context of good and evil at a cosmic level.

Humata, hukhta, hvarshta.

Well-thought thoughts, well-said words, well-done deeds.

Ethical principles of Zoroastrianism derived from the words of Zarathushtra.

What are museum ethics?

Museum ethics are a broad set of principles that museums as organisations and museum governors and practitioners (paid of voluntary) adhere to in their everyday practices. Like other professions and disciplines, such as police, lawyers, medics, museum sectors around the world have incorporated expected practice and conduct into codes of ethics. If you imagine the law of your country says, ‘you must/must not’, a code of ethics will say, ‘you should/should not’.

Curatorial ethics should not be a list of shoulds and shouldn’ts but asking questions to help us assess the consequences of our actions.

A student of mine recently commented that the term ‘Code of Ethics’ to her immediately implied a ‘rulebook’. The finer points of ethics being about making good decisions––ones that do most good or least harm to others and the world at large––were lost. I would like to propose that curatorial ethics should not be a list of shoulds and shouldn’ts but asking questions to help us assess the consequences of our actions.

The UK’s Museums Association first published a Code of Practice and Conduct in 1977. This has undergone a few iterations, with the most recent in 2016 being a much reduced series of more cogent principles intended to encourage everyday ethical behaviours in museums, rather than be called upon as a place of last resort. The MA’s code of ethics is enshrined in the Museum Accreditation scheme run by Arts Council England. There are three key principles:

1. Public engagement and public benefit
2. Stewardship of collections
3. Individual and institutional integrity.

The most common ethical dilemmas I have come across via the MA’s Ethics Committee are related to the status of an accessioned collections item, either at the point of disposal (especially sale) or disputed actual or moral ownership. Our work in the Decolonisation Guidance Working Group has raised several areas of the code that strengthen decolonial practice, as well as areas where the code could be improved or expanded.

Why have we created a new layer of activism and campaign-led practices when, in theory, it already exists––or should exist––in our ethical codes?

In theory the most used code of ethics for museums is that of the International Council on Museums or ICOM Code of Ethics. Translated into 38 languages, ICOM via ETHCOM, its Ethics Committee, issued its first code in 1986, then revised it 2004. It is currently undergoing a further review alongside the review of ICOM’s definition of a museum. There is a separate code of ethics for natural history museums. ICOM’s Code of Ethics is built around eight key principles:

1. Museums preserve, interpret and promote the natural and cultural inheritance of humanity.
2. Museums that maintain collections hold them in trust for the benefit of society and its development.
3. Museums hold primary evidence for establishing and furthering knowledge.
4. Museums provide opportunities for the appreciation, understanding and management of the natural and cultural heritage.
5. Museums hold resources that provide opportunities for other public services and benefits.
6. Museums work in close collaboration with the communities from which their collections originate as well as those they serve.
7. Museums operate in a legal manner.
8. Museums operate in a professional manner.

The imposition of a Eurocentric view of museums onto those that have emerged in the rest of the world, both during colonialism and decolonisation, suggests that we really need to think again about museum ethics in a global sense while we also try and identify what it is we as professionals and supporters of museums value about their social, educational and cultural purposes.

The American Alliance of Museums first adopted a code of ethics in 1993, last amended in 2000, more than 20 years ago. Given the huge socio-cultural shifts going on in the USA and particularly how so many ideas for socially-engaged practice comes out of American museums, it feels like ethics has been a seriously neglected tool. AAM’s Code of Ethics covers the following areas: Governance, collections and programs. Unlike the UK and ICOM codes, however, AAM encourages individual museums to create codes of ethics for their own institutions. I’d like to investigate this further to see whether any have done this, and what this has meant in practice.

How ethical are museum codes of ethics?

I started this piece thinking about what is commonly called ‘socially-engaged practice’ in museums. However aren’t we just talking about ethical practice? Why have we created a new layer of activism and campaign-led practices when, in theory, it already exists––or should exist––in our ethical codes? My sense is that codes of ethics remain obscure and opaque.

The ethical principles can sometimes be interpreted so widely as to render them meaningless, and therefore easy to ignore. While the new style code of the Museums Association feels much more like a set of starting point principles, there remain significant imbalances, particularly under Principle 3 Individual and Institutional Integrity which is thin in comparison to Principle 2 Stewardship of Collections. Yet, all categories of socially-engaged practice must start with a solid understanding of integrity and what relies upon it, such as equitable relationship building, responsiveness, trust and honesty. ICOM’s code of ethics feels more descriptive than proactive, ‘this is what we we say museums are and what we expect museums to do‘ rather than ‘this is what we expect museums to be‘.

Citizen Curators discussing ethics during an ethics training session in 2019.

All museum ethical codes lack an impulse for self-reflection and organisational self-reflection and accountability. All feature the notion of public benefit but there is little room for public beneficiaries to put forward their expectations of public museums. All of the codes privileged or centre the importance of the museum and its traditional functions over other parties that can have an interest in them, such as descendant and diaspora cultures (sometimes referred to as sources communities) and communities of interest.

Concepts of legal and moral ownership, a huge issue in decolonial and equity-led practices, remain moot. This has implications for repatriation and restitution as well as democratic uses of collections, particularly evident documentation: the control of what information is provided about items in a collection; and representations such as the production of images and surrogates which are automatically assumed to be the legal property of museums.

There is also no ethics enforcement in our sector unlike the medical or legal professions where you may get formally reprimanded or struck off for a range of misconduct. The MA’s Ethics Committee, for example, is advisory, an important sounding board for individuals and organisations but with no specific enforcement powers. I am often approached informally by colleagues for help with ethical dilemmas and increasingly I am struggling with using any of our codes to usefully help them navigate their problems. I know we need to probe widely and deeply to modernise curatorial ethics. Penning this essay is kind of a start.