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

International Council of Museums: ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums

American Association for State and Local History: AASLH Statement of Professional Standards and Ethics

Association of Art Museum Directors: Professional Practices In Art Museums

Association of Zoos and Aquariums: Code of Professional Ethics

American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works: Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice

Museum Store Association: Code of Ethics

Archaeological Institute of America: AIA Code of Ethics

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

American Historical Association: Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct

Association of Art Museum Directors: Code of Ethics for Art Museum Directors

AAM Curators’ Committee (CurCom) Professional Network: A Code of Ethics for Curators

AAM Collections Stewardship Professional Network: Code of Ethics and Professional Practices for Collections Professionals

Association of Art Museum Curators: Professional Practices for Art Museum Curators

National Council on Public History: NCPH Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct

American Anthropological Association: Principles of Professional Responsibility

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.

Learn more about an institutional code of ethics.

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