Code of ethics: Responsibilities of museum and art gallery staff
Our Code describes the responsibilities of museums, galleries, governing bodies and staff, to each other and to the collections, as well as to the public who support, fund and visit a museum or gallery.
All staff employed or volunteering within a museum or art gallery have ethical responsibilities at work and when undertaking museum-related activities beyond the walls of the museum or outside working hours.
Museum or art gallery staff will take special note of the following specific responsibilities:
To managers and the governing body
Museum and art gallery staff are expected to provide good advice to their managers and governing body on all matters relating to the museum, its policies and practices, or anything which impacts or may impact on its reputation and professional standing.
Staff will also:
- act in all respects as good employees;
- ensure that none of their actions brings the museum into professional, legal or public disrepute; and
- ensure that activities are in the best interests of the museum and relate directly to the policies approved by the governing body.
To the museum
Staff will have a genuine interest in the unique characteristics of Aotearoa New Zealand and the Treaty of Waitangi and be able to demonstrate appropriate understanding of the tikanga and kawa of tangata whenua;
Staff members will not solicit, directly or indirectly, nor accept, gifts, gratuities, favours or any other things of monetary value which may be construed as compromising their position.2 The governing body or local authority manager is to be informed immediately of token personal gifts or koha to individuals which do not fall into this category. Where such gifts are items which the museum collects, they must be freely offered for acceptance into the museum’s or art gallery’s collection and recorded through the usual channel.
The nature of the obligations inherent in any koha are to be clearly defined and recorded at the time of giving of the koha. Where a koha is presented to a staff member or a museum or art gallery, it becomes a bond between the giver and the receiver. An obligation may exist for the return of the koha at some future date, or for a reciprocation in kind. Where a koha is made in public to an institution, it becomes the property of the accepting institution which may also be bound by obligations of reciprocity.
If, at the time they join the museum staff, members hold a personal collection or collections relevant to the museum’s or art gallery’s, full details of that collection are to be provided to the governing body or appropriate manager.
During their employment in a given museum:
- staff involved in collecting in the same areas as the museum or gallery are to inform the governing body, local authority manager or relevant established committee of personal acquisitions as they are made – whether by gift or purchase – so the museum or gallery has the option, for a specified and limited period, to acquire such objects at the purchase price;
- staff will not use the museum’s affiliation to promote personal collecting activities nor seek any undue advantage in the transaction;
- staff wishing to dispose of any item from a personal collection will first offer it to the museum or art gallery for consideration.
In summary, no staff member is to compete with their employing organisation for an object of mutual interest.
If a work of art or other item owned by a member of staff or the board, or a close affiliate of the museum or gallery is borrowed for inclusion in an exhibition, care must be taken to distance the museum from being seen as an overt party to a possible increase in the work’s value. A proper process is to be outlined within the museum’s policy framework and levels of approval for the inclusion of such works established. In addition, care is to be taken with personal acknowledgment of such works in labels and publications. The use of ‘private collection’ is generally favoured in such situations.
Again in summary, museums and art galleries will ensure that there is no real or potential for perceived conflict of interest in showing works or items from the personal collections of individuals associated with the exhibition or with the museum or gallery.
To the public
Staff will be proactive in their dealings with their multiple audiences, visitors and interested others, to the best of their ability and be courteous and efficient at all times.
Wherever practicable, staff will facilitate access to the collections by tangata whenua, Moriori, and other individuals and groups wishing to study material important to their cultural heritage.
Appropriate advice may be given to members of the public about items in their possession and, if given, should be provided freely or on a cost recovery basis only.
Note: Museums should formulate a set of guidelines for such advice, including the following:
- although the results of scholarly research, examination and treatment of museum objects may make it possible for staff to contribute to the verification of an object and its history, they are never to undertake paid authentications nor paid or unpaid valuations of works in private possession;
- staff should not assist with the acquisition or disposal of private property, nor express an opinion about the relative merits of dealers or agents while giving advice to the public;3
- no object in a museum’s or art gallery’s collection will be deliberately or misleadingly identified or valued;
- no object will be undervalued by a staff member in order to acquire it for the collection at a price advantageous to the museum or art gallery.
It may be useful to formulate a list of dealers and agents in the museum or art gallery’s areas of interest or refer to the Ministry for Culture & Heritage for an approved list of valuers, etc, such as may result from legislation currently under consideration to promote philanthropic donations of cultural property.
To the collection
To the best of their ability, staff will ensure all collection items and taonga are handled and cared for in their totality, physically and culturally in accordance with national and international standards of best practice, including:
- proactively researching thoroughly best practice standards for care of collection items and ensuring every collection item is housed in good conditions;
- being diligent in keeping thorough and accurate records of objects, their provenance and condition, and proactively updating these over time as new information becomes available;
- maintaining a register of accidental damage to collection and loan items; and
- maintaining off-site backup storage of collection information.
Museums and art galleries will exercise due diligence when
- seeking to acquire or borrow items for acquisition (or for loan), including full provenance and other relevant information. They should also ensure vendors and other sources of material for acquisition are researched and enquiries relating to unprofessional and illegal activity in the field are carried out. This is a key consideration before seeking to import material on a fixed-term loan for exhibition or research purposes.4
Exhibitions, research and public programmes
One of the key ways that museum and art gallery staff provide access to the collections and related material in their care is through up-to-date and well-researched exhibitions, displays, book and catalogue publications, journal articles and collections-related public programmes. Collections research, exhibitions and public programmes are inter-related activities and it is important that each is informed by the others and re-freshed as new information and interpretations become available.
Immunity from Seizure legislation or similar legislation has been passed in many countries, most recently in Australia. It is in preparation also for New Zealand; reference about its progress may be made to the Ministry for Culture & Heritage.
Museum and art gallery staff will undertake the study of collection items, within the limits of their professional competence and the facilities of the museum. Accessibility to collections and exhibition-related research can be greatly enhanced through the regular maintenance of the museum’s or gallery’s web-site and, where practicable, increasing the digitisation of records.
Museum and art gallery staff will ensure that what they do is informed by current research in the relevant field. Individuals are encouraged to exhibit, display and otherwise make available and to publish collections-related and other research regularly and in a timely way, so it is accessible to all communities of interest and so that it may be reviewed and critiqued within the scholarly community.
In relation to others’ research, staff will:
- endeavour to become aware of and respect the research areas of other bona fide scholars actively working and publishing in the same or a similar field;
- allow such scholars full access to museum collections or records, subject to the safety of the items concerned.
Museum and art gallery staff engaged in research will ensure an active contribution to education and other programmes designed for the museum’s varied audiences, so that understanding of the collections and related scholarly research functions of the museum and art gallery staff are understood, widely supported and celebrated within their communities of interest.
2 Examples include gifts or favours from an artist or other person, group, or corporation which has obtained, or is seeking to obtain, contractual or other business, financial or professional relationships with the museum or art gallery.
3 It may be useful to formulate a list of dealers and agents in the museum or art gallery’s areas of interest or refer to the Ministry for Culture & Heritage for an approved list of valuers, etc, such as may result from legislation currently under consideration to promote philanthropic donations of cultural property.
4 Immunity from Seizure legislation or similar legislation has been passed in many countries, most recently in Australia. It is in preparation also for New Zealand; reference about its progress may be made to the Ministry for Culture & Heritage.