Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 26, 2001
Jackie Weisz Codes of Ethics and Practice of Interest to Museums Washington D.C.: American Association of Museums, 2000. 297 pp. Paper $33.50 (0931201691)

This publication, which is part of the American Association of Museum’s (AAM) Technical Information Service Series, compiles the codes of ethics written and employed by sixty-one museums, cultural institutions, and professional organizations. A spiral bound 8 1/2 by 11 inch compendium, Codes of Ethics and Practice of Interest to Museums reproduces the actual codes used by all of the AAM Standing Professional Committees, such as the Curators Committee, the Registrars Committee, and the Public Relations and Marketing Committee, as well as many AAM members, such as the Association of Youth Museums. It also contains a host of guidelines and codes of conduct for scientists and researchers affiliated with museums, such as biologists, anthropologists, librarians, and historians.

While paging through the official codes, which define the conduct and responsibilities of cultural workers—from preservationists to researchers to educators—one is reminded of the increased scrutiny to which our public educational institutions are held. And while little direct intellectual or moral debate appears in these documents, a careful read through its language of bureaucracy is educational for students of museum studies, institutional sociology, and the philosophy of modern ethics. The politics of professional boundaries meets the airtight syntax of lawyers as certain professions seek to define themselves as a class and escape culpability to litigation. Abstracted from the context of their institutions, reading page after page of these codes seems deafening because of the repetition of the obvious. Yet each line has undoubtedly been crafted and toned collaboratively in order to meet specific needs or to open and close specific spaces. Each code fluctuates between a mission declaration and contract, and operates both as a systemically constructed touchstone and a shield. Together, the twin motives of these documents help one to understand the role of these institutions or organizations and their broader interaction with society.

The compendium is indispensable to the potential author of any code of ethics. The range of examples reproduced here shows multiple ways of stating and dealing with recurrent issues. Some consist of statements listing an organization’s responsibility to the public, research communities, host institutions, patrons, and other professionals. Some issue preambles, organizational structures, and references to other codes. Others lay out detailed guidelines that attempt to address particular interactions between members and the public. Still, other codes are broader, eloquently drawing a portrait of an organization’s correct demeanor. Although the compendia are quite different, much of the voice and language is the same.

The United Kingdom’s Museums Association’s Code of Conduct for People who Work in Museums (211) illustrates how these documents reflect the best practices and ideals of today. It consists of numerically listed entries subdivided by headers such as “A. Public Obligations,” “B. Obligations to Your Employer / Client,” and “C. Obligation to Collegues.” In section C.1, “WORKING WITH OTHERS” the preparer’s write:

People who work in museums cover a wide range of specialisms; they all make a contribution to the successful operation of a museum and should foster positive working relationships.

—You Should:

1. stimulate and facilitate collaboration with other individuals and organisations

2. ensure that the contributions of colleagues at all levels are acknowledged

3. respect other people’s codes of conduct where consistent with this Code of Conduct and the Code of Practice for Museum Governing Bodies

4. be courteous to all colleagues and respect their feeling…(217)

While many of the points made in these documents are the stuff of common sense, their recitation here serves as an affirmation and positive vision of the field. And while being “courteous to all colleagues” may seem inseparable from professional or civil conduct, and hardly worth restating, it is through a code of ethics that professionals and institutions derive their status de jure.

Codes of ethics, guidelines, and standards are valued in democratic society. Outwardly, they confirm the integrity of organizations and help to generate public trust. Inwardly, they provide direction and stated goals. By printing these codes together, the editors of Codes of Ethics and Practice of Interest to Museums work to demystify their genesis and clarify their purpose. Series editor Roxanna Adams writes that the AAM publication can “help museum professionals in the United States promote institution-wide understanding” (ii) and assist in tracing the sources and interconnections among available ethics.

This publication also serves as an important historical source. Because most of these statements were crafted by committees and passed through approval boards, they function as time-stamped examples of group authorship. They are snapshots of the museum profession’s official thinking, ambitions, and highest standards. As examples of professional idealism, however, they are indelibly marked with social history.

The codes serve as a place to rewrite the mistakes and foibles of past practices. In the Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association: Approved June 1998, the preparers insist:

Anthropological researchers have primarily ethical obligations to the people, species, and materials they study and to people with whom they work. These obligations can supersede the goal of seeking new knowledge, and can lead to a decision not to undertake or to discontinue a research project when the primary obligation conflicts with other responsibilities, such as those owed to sponsors or clients (2).

The American Anthropological Association goes on to list the ethical obligations of anthropologists, which includes the obligation to “consult actively with the affected individuals or group(s), with the goal of establishing a working relationship that can be beneficial to all parties.” The sense that the anthropologist will consult with and work toward the goals of his or her subject is a recent development and is in tune with contemporary thought that anthropology is a study in cross-cultural relations rather than an exposition of the Other.

In the AAM Curators’ Committee’s Code of Ethics, 1996, we find the admission that “An ethics code for curators is difficult to formulate because curators in one discipline may be called on to perform duties that curators in another discipline would find, at worse unethical or, at best, inappropriate” (181). One finds that this compendium helps to clarify the variety of institutions and ethics currently in practice. It works against the uniformity and timelessness of these documents. Adams insists, “Ethics and practice continually evolve to reflect changing needs and expectations.” To this end, the editors of Codes of Ethics and Practice of Interest to Museums have included a modest bibliography that expounds the discourse of ethics in the context of public educational institutions. They have also included the American Association of Museums’ own recommendations for the construction of a code of ethics.

To be sure, critical essays which place these documents in the context of their institutions, with in the language of our judicial system, or in the context of the museum history or current events would be welcome. This is however outside the purview of this project. Simply, it is a collection of internal documents exposed to the greater community. As such, it provides an important look at our cultural institutions and is a valuable tool for those wrangling over the best way to define and steer their organizations.

David Michalski
Visual Arts Library, School of Visual Arts