An Introduction to ICOM’s Code of Ethics

ICOM’s Ethics Committee are committed to promulgating the Code of Ethics as widely as possible. You can download an English version of the Code here. Following is a primer to the Code and comments or queries can be directed to the Chair of the Ethics Committee,

Dr Martin Schärer

[1 Introduction]
Nationally and internationally, questions concerning ethics in the museum world have grown in importance during recent years. Worldwide interest has sharpened, for example, around topics related to the impact of colonization, repatriation claims by indigenous peoples, looted art, unauthorized excavations, trophy art, and illicit trafficking, also in relationship with armed conflicts. Furthermore the discussion on deaccessioning of museum objects gains in importance.
[2 Definition]
ETHICS (from the Greek word èthos: habit, character) is a philosophical discipline which discusses the setting of values to guide human behaviour, both public and private.
Within the museum, ethics can be defined as the discussion process intended to identify the basic values and principles on which the work of the museum relies. Ethics lead to the drawing up of principles set out in museums’ codes of ethics, of which the ICOM code is the most important example.

[3 Ethics within the ICOM context]
The first Ethics Code of ICOM was adopted in 1986 by the 15th General Assembly in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was modified in 2001 and completely revised in 2004. Published in 2006 for ICOM’s 60th birthday it deals with the acquisition, the protection, the documentation, the management and the promotion of cultural and natural heritage.
As early as in 1986 ICOM created a permanent Ethics Committee (the first permanent committee at all) which advises ICOM in all matters relating to museum professional ethics. The Ethics Committee has different objectives: Monitor the application of ICOM’s Code of Ethics for Museums and inform the Executive Council of serious violations; review on behalf of ICOM other codes of ethics that may be developed by the subordinate bodies of ICOM concerning their specialized domains; maintain awareness and advise the Executive Council on evolving ethical issues affecting museums and their work within the cultural heritage sector today.
[4 Code of Ethics]
The ICOM Code represents a minimum standard for museums. It is presented as a series of principles supported by guidelines for desirable professional practice. Each ICOM member commits to respecting the code. Even if it represents a professional self-regulation that is not legally binding, it is a key document of ICOM.
The vision expressed in the code is clearly prescriptive and normative. It is laid out in eight chapters that are mentioned hereafter including a short description of the basic principles and some important core ideas.
1 Museums preserve, interpret and promote the natural and cultural heritage of humanity (institutional, physical and financial resources needed to run a museum). Museums are responsible for the tangible and intangible natural and cultural heritage. Governing bodies and those concerned with the strategic direction and oversight of museums have a primary responsibility to protect and promote this heritage as well as the human, physical and financial resources made available for that purpose.
2 Museums that maintain collections hold them in trust for the benefit of society and its development (issues of acquisition and deaccession of collections). Museums have the duty to acquire, preserve and promote their collections as a contribution to safeguarding the natural, cultural and scientific heritage. Their collections are a significant public inheritance, have a special position in law and are protected by international legislation. Inherent in this public trust is the notion of stewardship that includes rightful ownership, provenance, permanence, documentation, accessibility and responsible disposal.

  • No object or specimen should be acquired by purchase, gift, loan, bequest, or exchange unless the acquiring museum is satisfied that a valid title is held. (2.2)
  • Every effort must be made before acquisition to ensure that any object or specimen… has not been illegally obtained in, or exported from its country of origin. (2.3)
  • Museums should not acquire objects where there is reasonable cause to believe their recovery involved unauthorised or unscientific fieldwork. (2.4)
  • Collections of human remains and material of sacred significance should be acquired only if they can be housed securely and cared for respectfully. (2.5)
  • Special care is required in considering any item, whether for sale, as a donation, or as a tax-benefit gift, from members of governing bodies, museum personnel, or the families and close associates of these persons. (2.10)
  • Museum collections are held in public trust and may not be treated as a realisable asset. Money or compensation received from the deaccessioning and disposal of objects… should be used solely for the benefit of the collection. (2.16)
  • Museum collections should be documented according to accepted professional standards. (2.20)
  • All conservation procedures should be documented and as reversible as possible. (2.24)

3 Museums hold primary evidence for establishing and furthering knowledge (deontology of research and of collecting evidence). Museums have particular responsibilities to all for the care, accessibility and interpretation of primary evidence collected and held in their collections.

  • The museum collections policy… should not be governed only by current intellectual trends or present museum usage. (3.1)

4 Museums provide opportunities for the appreciation, understanding and promotion of the natural and cultural heritage (deontology of exhibiting). 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 its heritage is an integral part of the educational role of the museum.

  • [Displays] should not compromise either the quality or the proper care and conservation of the collections. (4.1)

5 Museums hold resources that provide opportunities for other public services and benefits (issues of expertise). Museums utilise a wide variety of specialisms, skills and physical resources that have a far broader application than in the museum. This may lead to shared resources or the provision of services as an extension of the museum’s activities. These should be organized in such a way that they do not compromise the museum’s stated mission.
6 Museums work in close collaboration with the communities from which their collections originate as well as with those that they serve (issues of cultural property). Museum collections reflect the cultural and natural heritage of the communities from which they have been derived. As such they have a character beyond that of ordinary property which may include strong affinities with national, regional, local, ethnic, religious or political identity. It is important therefore that museum policy is responsive to this possibility.

  • Museums should be prepared to initiate dialogues for the return of cultural property to a country or people of origin. (6.2)

7 Museums operate in a legal manner (respect of rules and laws). Museums must conform fully to international, regional, national, or local legislation and treaty obligations. In addition, the governing body should comply with any legally binding trusts or conditions relating to any aspect of the museum, its collections and operations.

  • Museums should conform to all national and local laws and respect the legislation of other states as they affect their operation. (7.1)

8 Museums operate in a professional manner (professional conduct and conflicts of interest). Members of the museum profession should observe accepted standards and laws and uphold the dignity and honour of their profession. They should safeguard the public against illegal or unethical professional conduct. Every opportunity should be used to inform and educate the public about the aims, purposes, and aspirations of the profession to develop a better public understanding of the contributions of museums to society.

  • Members of the museum profession should not compete with their institution either in the acquisition of objects or in any personal collecting activity. (8.16)
  • It seems important to emphasize that the Code doesn’t only mention the museum workers but also members of the governing bodies. They should establish clear mission statements and statutes for the museum and supervise the application of the deontological behaviour of the personnel.

5 Ethics Code of the World Federation of Friends of Museums
Among many other codes it is important to mention the Code of Ethics of the World Federation of Friends of Museums, adopted in 2002. This code is crucial since it concerns a very important group of persons, the friends and volunteers who could represent a “deontological risk”. The code mentions the generosity and the enthusiasm of friends and volunteers who should never seek any financial or other benefit. They are asked to avoid conflicts of interest, especially with respect to acquisition, donations and sponsoring. All actions should be engaged with the full consent of the museum and its staff.