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ICOM code of ethics

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ICOM designed a Code of Ethics which was first adopted by its members in 1986. The code was revised in 2004 in keeping with trends and changes within society at large and the museum sector. It has been translated into 38 languages thus far.

There are some key ethical principles to be found in the ICOM Code of Ethics which we wish to highlight here.

The first ethical principle which directly emphasizes the stewardship role of the museum is (II),

”their collections are a significant public inheritance, have a special position…. Inherent in this public trust is the notion of stewardship that includes rightful ownership, permanence, documentation, accessibility and responsible disposal”.
The second ethical principle of significance for our discussions is (IV). It states,
”Museums have an important duty to develop their educational role and attract wider audiences from the community, locality or group they serve. Interaction with the constituent community and promotion of their heritage is an integral part of the educational role of the museum”.
The third ethical principle of relevance is (V).
”Museums work in close collaboration with the communities from which their collections originate as well as those they serve”.
Following on this, (VI) states;
”museum collections reflect the cultural and natural heritage of the communities from which they have been derived”. (VII) asserts that museums must “conform fully to international, regional, national and local legislation and treaty obligations. […] the governing body of the museum should comply with any legally binding trusts or conditions…”.
And the final ethical principle of particular relevance here, the members of the museum profession
“should safeguard the public against illegal or unethical professional conduct”.
Each of the principles identified above provide a guide toward making good, responsible decisions and choices for building socially inclusive strategies and practices. These can be applied at micro or professional leadership levels as well as at the senior management and board levels.
As scholar and author Linda Fisher Thornton states:
“you won’t find ethical leadership in the rule books. It’s in the deep commitment to good that drives our choices and transforms our organisations”. (7 Lenses, Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership. Richmond University Press, 2013)

Some of the key principles which we wish to highlight with respect to ethical leadership in museums are the following:

  • (i) the use of Pre, Prior and Informed Consent forms: always to be done before any museum-led process begins; consultative meetings, research or objects are collected and exhibited so that participants are fully informed of what the purpose, use and known outcomes are. Where there may be unknown consequences, this should be stated. Consent from individuals and communities should be well documented and stored responsibly. This could be done in writing, or recorded in mother-tongue and committed to writing after.
  • (ii) the principle of ‘do no harm’ should be thoroughly thought through when engaging with communities, in particular those who have been marginalized and brutalized over time. The potential of re-opening wounds of trauma and in turn, harming individuals or communities needs to be carefully considered.
  • (iii) ethical practice should include the right of the individual or community concerned to contest or withdraw permissions when representation and use is deemed harmful.
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