Developing a Research Network to Advance 21st-Century Museum Ethics in Theory and Practice

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Museum Studies


Museums now face some of the most serious challenges in their history. Most are under-resourced which often means that innovative agendas to promote the common good are abandoned in favour of conventional approaches to practice. Financial pressure is causing some museum leaders to consider choices, from selling collections to dismantling outreach programmes, that may compromise their institutions' standing into the future. Ethics, as opposed to law, is ostensibly self-regulating but there are increasingly strident calls for stronger enforcement. Museums and related professional bodies are writing, reviewing and tightening up ethics codes. Legal intervention is being considered more closely. Traditional museum ethics discourse, created to instil professional practice and maintain power structures through a system of consensus and its correlative, coercion, is unable to meet the needs of museums and society; it offers few inroads for divergent voices or radical rethinking. New theories and methods are needed to take museums into the future.

Five workshops are proposed that employ creative methods to encourage museum professionals, academics and the Museums Association together to problem-solve during a time of crisis and map an ethics framework useful to a 21st century museum sector. Cross-disciplinary links between museum studies and ethics create a novel approach to exploring difficult issues. Network participation encompasses the unique contributions of national and international leaders in ethics discourse and represents diverse strands in museum activity, as ethics is key to every part of the museum. What participants share is an understanding of the contingent nature of museum ethics--its responsiveness to economic, social, political and technological forces--and a desire to translate theory into practice.

Synergy among project partners will catalyze innovative thought. Initiating partner, the Research Centre for Museums & Galleries (RCMG) at the University of Leicester, brings a trajectory of experience researching the social role of museums. The School of Museum Studies in which RCMG resides works with museums internationally to develop creative practice through leading edge research and teaching; principal Investigator Marstine is introducing an ethics strand to its campus-based M.A. programmes. She is founder and former director of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University. Partner two, the Museums Association (MA), is the voice for museums in the UK and sets ethical standards for the sector. Partner three, the Inter-Disciplinary Ethics Applied Centre for Excellence in Teaching & Learning (IDEA CETL), University of Leeds, helps professionals across disciplines identify, analyse and respond effectively to ethical issues they encounter in their careers.

Workshop 1 redefines museum ethics and looks at social engagement as an ethics agenda. Workshop 2 explores the transformative potential of transparency and the changing role of ethics codes. Workshop 3 considers new attitudes of shared responsibility towards museum assets--buildings, collections and knowledge. Workshop 4 focuses on a specific type of museum-the art gallery-and the challenges it faces in engaging new museum ethics. Workshop 5 discusses environmental and economic sustainability and envisions new models for ethical practice.

Outputs include dissemination of a project digest on partner websites/social media; a training seminar on the new ethics offered through the MA; an article in the MA's Museums Journal setting a framework for engaging 21st-century museum ethics; a "rethinking museum ethics" activity at the 2013 MA conference; a peer-reviewed essay by Marstine informed by Workshop 4; a talk at the 2013 American Association of Museums conference on embedding ethics in museum studies; network evaluation-potentially leading to revision-of the MA ethics code; and collaboration among participants to develop future initiatiatives

Planned Impact

MUSEUM AND HERITAGE SECTOR IN THE UK AND INTERNATIONALLY: Traditional museum ethics is founded upon a rigid and technical language and was historically developed by like-minded individuals in a manner that maintains standard practice and power structures. It is unable to guide museum professionals through the complex ethical challenges and opportunities emerging from the 21st century social, technological, economic and political landscape. The outcomes of the research network will benefit the national and international museum and heritage sector in tangible and profound ways through a multi-layered approach. At a time when the future of museums in the UK and around the world looks bleak, new dynamic concepts of ethics responsive to cultural context and clear strategies for implementation will support museum professionals and emerging professionals to develop greater competence in ethical decision-making in policy and planning and demonstrate public accountability, trust and relevance. Project activities will encourage museum staff, academics and the Museums Association to collaboratively identify much needed practical solutions by designing an ethics framework that prepares museums for the future. The participation of the Museums Association and of renowned museum directors and policy makers in the network will steer research towards new models of practice that ensure sustainability.

MUSEUM AND HERITAGE ASSOCIATIONS AND RELATED ORGANIZATIONS: By prioritizing a new ethics agenda in partnership with the UK Museums Association, the research network will impact museum and heritage associations and related organizations around the world. The work of the research network will show to associations such as the International Council of Museums, the American Association of Museums and the Museums Association of Australia (leadership of all three organizations is represented by network participants) and related groups that museum ethics needs to be redefined and made central to the project of museum advocacy. Through engaging in difficult but necessary conversations about the future of ethics and the role of ethics in the future of museums, the UK Museums Association sets an inspiring example for other cultural heritage associations and related organizations to follow.

POLICY MAKERS AND GOVERNMENT BODIES: The activities of the research network will prove valuable to policy makers and governments at the local, regional, national and trans-national levels as they painstakingly weigh the benefits of public services and the need for budget cuts. An invigorated ethics agenda within the museum sector can show financial decision-makers that ethical and sustainable stewardship of cultural heritage is a public good essential to the thriving of communities in the future.

LOCAL COMMUNITIES AND THE WIDER PUBLIC: The initiatives of the research network will impact local communities and the wider public by identifying pathways to shared authority with museums. Providing a framework to make museums more democratic, transparent and socially relevant, the network will help forge new relationships between museums and communities built on participation, mutual understanding and joint decision-making.

THE UK TOURIST ECONOMY: Finally, by fostering sustainability of UK museums and galleries through engagement with a new ethics, the research network will make a significant contribution to economic performance. It has been shown that the UK's museums and galleries are a key driver in the UK's tourist industry (National Museum Directors' Conference, A Manifesto for Museums, 2004). The fruits of renewed commitment to ethics-including greater accountability, participatory practice and public trust-will help museums to thrive in this challenging economic climate and further contribute to the financial health of the tourist industry.


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Description The research network expressed a compelling need for change in museums through the framework of new museum ethics. Participants were receptive to the premise of the network that new methods and new ways of thinking are required to equip museums to develop responsive ethical policies, procedures and decision-making now and the future. Whilst many questions persist about the practical implications of the new museum ethics that will require further research, responses from contributors reveal the significance to leaders in the sector of the five ethics themes on which the network focused, social engagement; transparency; shared guardianship of collections; moving beyond canonicity; and sustainability. Throughout the process, participants used these five themes to raise ethics issues that struck deep at the core of what museums are for and who they are for.
Exploitation Route They are now taken forward by the Ethics Committee Museums Association as it reconceptualises its ethics code.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description They have been used to help inspire a reconceptualization of the Museums Association Ethics Code, the latest draft of which was ratified in 2015. In particular the grounding of the Code within a larger system of values and case studies comes from discussions in the AHRC Ethics Network.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural