Ethics are principles that help people make choices about what they ought to do. Ethical practices are based on rights, obligations, or other values. Acting ethically means adopting behaviors that, if universally accepted, would lead to the best possible outcomes for the largest possible number of people. A commonly agreed upon set of ethical principles and practices encourage people to act beneficially and for the common good.
Acting ethically is different from acting lawfully. Laws usually reflect ethical standards that most citizens accept. AAM’s Code of Ethics for Museums reminds us that “Legal standards are a minimum. Museums and those responsible for them must do more than avoid legal liability; they must take affirmative steps to maintain their integrity so as to warrant public confidence. They must act not only legally but also ethically.”
A code of ethics is a statement of shared values that informs museum behavior and practice so as to maintain integrity and warrant public confidence.
The AAM Code of Ethics for Museums
The AAM Code of Ethics for Museums promulgates the ethical principles that all museums—regardless of type or size—and museum professionals are expected to follow to guide decision-making. This code also serves as the foundational set of core ethical principles that should be incorporated into each museum’s own institutional code of ethics.
More Codes of Ethics for the Museum Field
Ethics are also sometimes embedded in standards and professional practices documents issued by museum organizations. In their own institutional code of ethics, museums should also incorporate/refer to codes that are relevant to their discipline or area of practice.
Ethics Codes for Specific Jobs/Functions
Institutional Codes of Ethics (for Individual Museums)
An institutional code of ethics is a Core Document. It is important that every museum not only have its own institutional code of ethics but also foster a culture of ethical practice and behavior.
A museum’s code of ethics is founded on public accountability, public trust, and public service. For museums and their staff, volunteers, and governing authority members operating and acting ethically means making decisions with these fundamentals at the forefront and ensuring that no individual associated with the museum personally benefits (especially financially) as a result.