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Ethics Smackdown: Preamble

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Last week I wrote about the Ethics Smackdown that took place at the Alliance annual meeting last month. This week, Sally Yerkovich, director of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University and moderator of the debate, sets the stage for the arguments for and against the proposition to revisit the Alliance Code of Ethics.
In the spring of 2011, Seton Hall University’s Institute of Museum Ethics began to talk with the Center for the Future of Museums at the American Alliance of Museums about working together on a project dealing with ethics in museums.  We agreed that ethics, like other cultural values, change over time and wondered how the many changes we are seeing today — in the global economy, demographics, and technology, among others — will affect museum practice.
We speculated that it would not be surprising to find that the ethical principles that guided professional practice even just a little more than ten years ago when the AAM Code of Ethics was last revised might continue to change dramatically over the next ten to twenty-five years.  And while museum professionals make decisions about ethical issues on a regular basis, we tend to think together about them only when a crisis arises.  So we asked if there might be something that we could do to start a constructive and future-oriented dialogue about ethics in our field.
We decided to embark upon a forecasting exercise to identify some of the critical issues that may need to be addressed in a future revision of the Code of Ethics and were pleased to find that there were many people interested in working with us on this.  We approached close to two hundred museum professionals — from emerging professionals to senior experts, from educators to registrars, public relations staff and fundraisers to directors — as well as professionals from related fields like librarians and archivists, attorneys, journalists, and even futurists and ethicists.
Of these, seventy-nine agreed to participate in a forecasting exercise that would take place on the Internet.  In addition, we invited public participation and had over one hundred members of the general public weigh in on various aspects of the project.
The forecast identified six issues likely to be of profound importance to museums in the next ten to twenty-five years.  They are:
Accessibility — encompassing the whole range of questions related to ease of access
  • Accountability and transparency in governance, operations, and finance
  • Conflict of Interest on several different levels — governance, staff and donors
  • Control of content, again a broad category dealing with everything from curatorial independence and public participation to censorship
  • Diversity; and
  • Collecting and deaccessioning


Of all of these groups of issues, it was the last, and in particular how the Code of Ethics should change regarding the use of funds from the sale of deaccessioned collections, that was the most controversial.
There was no consensus about how the Code should change but there were strong feelings about every possibility.  About half of our forecasters predicted that the restrictions will be loosened; twenty percent through they will remain about the same (although perhaps subject to greater public scrutiny) and the remainder, around thirty percent, felt that restrictions on deaccessioning will be tightened. 
The current Code was written, for the most part, to be very general and non-prescriptive.  It was designed to apply to museums of all types and sizes (from an historic house with $50,000 in annual operating expenses, to a zoo with a $50 million budget).  And in part it reflects the inability of the field to come to consensus on some issues, such as the definition of “direct care.”  It is clear from the forecasters’ comments, however, that there is now a hunger for more clarity and guidance.
Comments on all side of the issue were impassioned.  There were calls for clarity,
“These policies are already way behind the eight ball in terms of the fields need for reasonable guidance and standards. In our zeal to avoid making rules, or the inclination to make “one size fits all” rules for the field, we have done the field a terrible disservice.”
There were calls for change,
“AAM’s standards about the use of funding for deaccessioning is stuck in the 20th century. Pretty soon, we’ll have tons of stuff but no museums left to reach audiences.”
And there were calls to protect the collections entrusted to museums,
“AAM and other national and state organizations need to step it up and ensure that the nations treasures stay put or go to other museums for care and not into private collections.”
We are not surprised by the passion expressed in the forecasters’ comments on this issue. Deaccessioning, and use of funds from deaccessioning, is perennially a huge issue for museums, with many seeing an ethical prohibition as the only way to keep governing authorities, or parent organizations, from raiding the cultural till.  Some of our forecasters were recruited from outside the museum field, however, and had different observations,
“As someone who is not an insider to the museum world, I really think this issue is a ridiculous tempest in a teapot. As long as institutions aren’t creating a massive black market for famous works and selling off items from the permanent collection on a regular basis, I can assure you that NOBODY CARES about deaccessioning outside of a few academics and museum nuts.  In general, there is a movement in the nonprofit sector to place less importance on administrative cost ratios and more importance on whether an organization is accomplishing its mission. If a few works have to be sold in order to keep a museum alive, even if that money pays down debts or whatever, to me that is in keeping with the mission.”
So, with that as background, we proceeded to explore some of the issues surrounding the use of funds from deaccessioning and to debate the motion:
American museums should revisit the code of ethics for museums and relax the restriction on the use of funds from the sale of deaccessioned collections.


Stay tuned next week for part three of this series: the arguments against the proposition.
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  1. If I recall correctly, one of the motivations when AAM first began working on a code of ethics was a situation where the trustees at a certain large art museum (which shall remain unnamed) were deaccessioning artwork so they could add it to their personal collections. There are clearly eggregious situations like this when it comes to deaccessioning but there are also some where deaccessioning may be a matter of institutional survival. Saying all deaccessioning for funds is unethical is not all that different from the NRA saying that not allowing people to possess rapid fire firearms with large magazines is a step toward dictatorship. Each represents sloppy logic.

  2. One perspective to consider is the changing character of collections in an age of digital reproduction and cultural globalization and access. There was a time when possession of authentic collections was a source of institutional status and regional pride. Each City needed its Picassos, Dinosaurs, or Greek urns in order to be a considered a sophisticated, mature, and contemporary urban destination. Is the power of possession now being superseded by the power of access? Are communities less interested in owning their Picasso and more interested in having access to the best Picassos for a temporary period. Researchers, too, are increasingly attracted by the convenience of a HD images and searchable data bases of collections and archival records, not needing to make the trip to see the originals. Often these digital files can reveal information that the naked eye is incapable of detecting. Once digitized, virtual collections can be manipulated in ways the actual object cannot. The question then arises, how many Audubon mammals portfolios are required to be in the public domain once they are digitized and accessible? What if a natural history museum was given such a portfolio at a time when it was considered natural historical documentation as opposed to art? Should the natural history museum continue to hold the item when duplicates exist in the neighboring art museum? Should the two museums collaborate, produce an in-depth digital file for one portfolio and keep one “auratic” regional original for researchers? Rather than focusing on the ethical extremes of corruption and greed, should we be focused on more positive discussions of institutional collaborations, loans, centralized repositories, and alternate access and preservation of cultural and natural heritage, rather than stubborn defense of the status quo? Should we be having a rich discussion of how the presence of the virtual object affects the status of the actual object? Sully

  3. As with many ethical dilemmas, the questions around the use of funds from deaccessioning are not black and white. The UK Arts Council has developed a Disposals Toolkit that provides very detailed guidelines for the deaccessioning and disposal processes and that allows for leeway in the use of funds in an 'exceptional circumstance.' This seems to provide ethical breathing room for deaccessioning motivated by institutional survival. Should we consider something similar in the US?

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