What are Ethics?
Ethics are well-founded principles that help people make choices about what they ought to do. Ethical practices are based on rights, obligations or other values. Acting ethically means adopting behaviors that, if universally accepted, would lead to the best possible outcomes for the largest possible number of people. Ethical standards encourage people to act beneficially and for the common good—or with “common sense.”
A museum’s code of ethics is founded on public accountability, public trust, and public service. For museums and their staff, operating and acting ethically means making decisions with these fundamentals at the forefront and ensuring that no individual associated with the museum personally benefits (especially financially) as a result. It is important that museums not only have a code of ethics but foster a culture of ethical practice and behavior.
Acting ethically is different from acting lawfully. Laws usually reflect ethical standards that most citizens accept. “But legal standards,” as noted in the our Code of Ethics for Museums, “are a minimum. Museums and those responsible for them must do more than avoid legal liability; they must take affirmative steps to maintain their integrity so as to warrant public confidence. They must act not only legally but also ethically.”
In 1991 our Board of Directors adopted the Code of Ethics for Museums, our formal statement of the ethical principles museums and museum professionals are expected to observe. Our Code of Ethics for Museums outlines ethical principles that should be incorporated into each museum’s own institutional code of ethics.
The following compilation includes ethical codes and guidelines that are specific to museums. We appreciate being informed of other ethical statements that may be useful to the museum profession.
There are many organizations with ethical guidelines relevant to museum operations. We encourage museums to abide by these if appropriate to their circumstances.