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Information about Museum Ethics and Professional Practices

College Art Association members may, from time to time, have inquiries about ethical guidelines for museums and museum professionals, with respect to their own institutions or otherwise. These questions might arise, for example, in connection with: the propriety of deaccessioning objects in a museum’s permanent collection; the propriety of acquiring ancient or otherwise culturally sensitive artworks; the rights and responsibilities of curators, directors, boards of trustees, as well as various types of exhibition practices and procedures. This memo is intended to direct members to readily available sources that may illuminate particular issues or address such concerns.

These ethical issues have been described in several books and codified by many organizations, including the American Alliance of Museums (AAM, formerly the American Association of Museums), the International Council of Museums (ICOM), and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD).

Excellent books on the subject include: Museum Governance: Mission, Ethics, Policy (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994),  by Marie C. Malaro, the former legal advisor to the Smithsonian Institution, and A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), also by Malaro. Members can also consult National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums (Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 2008), by Elizabeth E. Merritt.
Guidelines of professional associations also offer assistance on ethical and procedural issues:

  • Code of Ethics for Museums,” Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, (1991, with 2000 amendments). The AAM website also offers guidelines on archeological artifacts and artworks possibly associated with the Nazi era.  
  • Standards and Best Practices,” Washington, DC: American Association of Museums. These pages offer guidance on issues such as art education and collections stewardship, among others.
  • “Professional Practices in Art Museums,” New York: Association of Art Museum Directors (2011), and “AAMD College and University Guidelines for Art on Campus,” New York: Association of Art Museum Directors (2009), are found on the AAMD website. The AAMD also offers comment on archaeological artifacts and artworks possibly associated with the Nazi era. Researchers should see the same page on AAMD’s website.
  • Code of Ethics,” Paris: International Council of Museums (1986, revised 2004). ICOM’s website additionally offers news and position papers on endangered artworks and artifacts as well as legal developments.

Other useful resources include: the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University; the Association of Art Museum Curators; and the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries.

Finally, for those researching international agreements covering artworks and archeological objects, the International Foundation for Art Research is a useful resource.

Authors and Contributors

The CAA Board of Directors wishes to thank the chair of the Museum Committee, Katherine Crum, for researching and compiling this information.

This information was updated in 2012 with the aid of the Museum Committee, under chair Karol Ann Lawson.