Museum ethics

In 2009 the CMA started an Ethics Q&A in its bimonthly publication,  Muse, featuring questions and answers submitted by museum professionals across the country. 

Archives: 2010

Question:  Who owns the research material gathered by a researcher while in the museum’s employ, and is the employee entitled to remove his/her research papers when leaving the museum’s employ (eg. field notes)?  September/October 2010

Question:  To please and retain your most important donor who has offered to bequeath her very important collection to your museum (of Canadiana, for example), you agree to display some very weak and frankly substandard pieces with the rest of her collection. How far are you willing to go to keep her happy?   May/June 2010

Question:  As the director of a museum, you have just discovered that one of your senior staff members is having a sexual relationship with one of your board members. What do you do about this?  March/April 2010

Question:  What are the legal rights of a museum to dispose of artefacts that were “loaned” to the museum years ago? The donor is long gone or deceased, the museum no longer wants the items, and no instructions were left about the items’ final disposal. If the museum destroys, discards or transfers the artefacts, and the donor’s heirs come along saying they want the items back, the museum may be accused of improperly and without authority handling entrusted items.  How long does a museum legally have to hold onto loaned artefacts? At some point does the museum become the legal owner?  January/February 2010

Archives: 2009

Question:  Do the arts and/or museum sectors have an ethical responsibility to be more proactive and vocal regarding the worsening condition of the planet as a result of climate change?  November/December 2009

Question:  When a vast collection of paintings, privately owned, are placed on 'permanent loan' to a museum (in this case, under a 99-year-lease arrangement), who is responsible for the costs of restoration when deterioration naturally occurs?  September/October 2009

Question:  How do you handle a situation in which a curator uses his position to collect pieces for himself instead of the institution he works for?  July/August 2009

Question:  Are there any circumstances under which it is considered ethical to sell an institution's collection for the purpose of generating revenue?  May/June 2009

Question:  Should a museum director, or another staff member, be eligible to receive a percentage of the new income they raise as a bonus for successful fundraising?  March/April 2009


CMA Publications:

The CMA's Ethics Guidelines  [PDF]
Roles and Responsibilities of Museum Boards of Trustees  [PDF]



Institute of Museum Ethics  
The Museum Association's (UK) ethics page
The International Council of Museums' (ICOM) Code of Ethics for Museums , available in 19 languages
The Museum's Ethical Challenges in the Public Interpretation of Enterprises in Ethnoecology [PDF], by Duncan Ferguson Cameron, FMA, FCMA