Public Trust and Accountability Standards

Public trust is the principle that certain natural and cultural resources are preserved for public benefit. In essence, it means the public owns the collections, and they should be kept available so the public can study them, enjoy them, and learn from them.

The AAM Code of Ethics for Museums states that “Museums in the United States are grounded in the tradition of public service. They are organized as public trusts, holding their collections and information as a benefit for those they were established to serve.” Museums rely on the public and are one of the most trusted institutions in society, therefore they need to maintain the highest level of accountability and transparency.

Core Standards: Public Trust and Accountability

  • The museum is a good steward of its resources held in the public trust.
  • The museum identifies the communities it serves and makes appropriate decisions in how it serves them.
  • Regardless of its self-identified communities, the museum strives to be a good neighbor in its geographic area.
  • The museum strives to be inclusive and offers opportunities for diverse participation.
  • The museum asserts its public service role and places education at the center of that role.
  • The museum demonstrates a commitment to providing the public with physical and intellectual access to the museum and its resources.
  • The museum is committed to public accountability and is transparent in its mission and its operations.
  • The museum complies with local, state and federal laws, codes and regulations applicable to its facilities, operations, and administration.
  • The governing authority, staff and volunteers legally, ethically and effectively carry out their responsibilities.

Related Core Document

Professional Practices: Ethics

A museum’s ethical guidelines–either as part of its institutional code or in other approved policies (e.g., personnel policies, collections management policy)–should address: ethical duties of the governing authority, staff and volunteers; ethics related to the relationship of the governing authority and director; conflict of interest (for example: disclosure, gifts and favors, loans, outside employment, personal collecting, purchases of museum property, use of assets, confidentiality); collections ethics issues (for example: acquisition, deaccession, care and preservation ); museum management practices (for example: legal compliance, ownership of intellectual property/scholarly research, personnel management); and the museum’s responsibility to the public. In addition, it is also considered best practice to have policies that address (where applicable): management of business or individual support; commercial activities; and political activities. The institutional code of ethics should also contain a section addressing how the code will be implemented.

The following may be incorporated into the institutional code of ethics, or exist as separate documents, in which case they should be referenced in the institutional code of ethics:

Sections on individual ethics, personal conduct and conflict of interest issues that spell out such details for staff, volunteers and members of the governing authority. These sections may exist separately in, for example, a personnel policy.

Sections on collections-related ethics. These sections may exist separately in the museum’s collections management policies.

The museum may also adhere to codes of ethics specific to its discipline/collections and/or professional museum functions (e.g., Curators Code of Ethics). Adoption of these codes cannot replace a separate institutional code. However, if the museum chooses to adhere to these codes, its code of ethics either should incorporate appropriate language from those codes or cite them and indicate that the museum will abide by them.

Museums governed by a larger institution or organization that does not have museum management as its primary operating purpose are required to have an institutional code of ethics that address the museum-specific issues outlined in this standard.

Expectations to Abide By Discipline-Specific Ethics Statements

Museums are expected to abide by “standards and best practices as they are generally understood in the museum field.” Some discipline-specific associations have issued ethics statements or guidelines applicable to their disciplines or members. Museums should adhere to these ethics guidelines if they are: broadly applicable to all museums in that segment of the museum field; non-prescriptive–describing desirable outcomes rather than endorsing particular methods of achieving these outcomes; based when possible on applicable existing, widely accepted principles in the field; developed through a broadly inclusive process that gathers input from museums of relevant disciplines, geographic location, size, governance type and other relevant variables.

For example, history organizations are expected to adhere to The Statement of Professional Standards and Ethics of the American Association for State and Local History. Art museums that are members of the Association of Art Museum Directors are expected to adhere to Professional Practices in Art Museums of that association. When developing their codes of ethics, general museums (those that encompass two or more disciplines) must decide how these discipline-specific codes apply to their overall operations and make the reasoning behind those decisions clear.

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