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Ethical and Legal Collections Issues

Collections Stewardship Standards

American Alliance of Museums

The Alliance provides standards on collections stewardship. This document addresses the importance, purpose and assessment of collection stewardship.

Issue: Ethics and Best Practices in Museums

American Alliance of Museums

Museums sometimes face questions related to historic artifacts, ownership, Nazi-era assets, sacred objects, human remains, the loan, sale, or donation of objects, or their diligence in probing the history of such objects. Since 1925, the museum field has been actively working to ensure that museums adhere to rigorous ethical standards, and AAM works to ensure that museums are identifying and achieving the highest standard of legal and ethical policies and practices.

What’s the Deal on Dealing?

American Alliance of Museums

Museum magazine discusses the conflicts of interests surrounding and involving collections stewardship.

Law & Ethics: An Ounce of Prevention

American Alliance of Museums
Museum magazine addresses ethical and legal considerations for the closure of a university museum and its collection to be sold. The article addresses MOUs, legal impediments due to donor restrictions, the role of a separately incorporated friends group, and the vulnerability of museums run by non-museum parent organizations.

“Art on Campus” Guidelines

Association of Art Museum Directors

AAMD offers its “Art on Campus” Guidelines to help museum professionals meet their academic missions while preserving collections for future generations.

Natural History Museums and Wildlife Trafficking: A Framework for Global Action


This white paper released by the Natural History Committee of ICOM, lays out a vision for involving the world’s natural history museums in the fight against illicit trafficking of wildlife. The paper describes some of the core values on the illegal wildlife trade, as well as our priorities for improving the effectiveness and efficiency of coordinated efforts. (PDF, 8 pages)

Laws, Executive Orders & Regulations

National Park Service

The National Park Service (NPS) provides links to the full text of federal laws, regulations, and guidelines related to the management of cultural and natural resources.

Legal Issues in Museums

National Park Service

The National Park Service’s (NPS) Museum Handbook (PDF) has a chapter that addresses legal issues. The 62-page document includes a discussion of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), privacy laws, and publicity legislation as they impact museums. Although the FOIA applies only to federal agencies, many states have similar legislation. The chapter also includes an Access and Use Legal Action Chart that summarizes applicable legislation and suggested actions (PDF pages 28-40 and 46-54), and it also discusses copyright, patent and trademark laws (PDF pages 4-23).

Selected Sections of the Rules of the Board of Regents (8 NYCRR)

New York State Education Department (NYSED)

The NYSED shares some selected sections of the Rules of the Board of Regents (8 NYCRR) that affect museums chartered in New York State.

Open Government Guide

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press provides a compendium of information on every state’s open records and open meetings laws. Museums may find this useful when writing policies concerning access to collections records.

Ivory Ban Questions & Answers

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

On July 6, 2016, a near-total ban on commercial trade in African elephant ivory went into effect in the United States. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provides guidance on this webpage for those who wish to buy, sell, or otherwise trade in elephant ivory.

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