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Reference: André Desvallées and François Mairesse (Eds.). Key Concepts of Museology. 2010. Available in 9 languages from http://icom.museum/professional-standards/key-concepts-of-museology/


n. (From the Greek ethos: customs, character)– Equivalent French: éthique; Spanish: ética; German: Ethik; Italian: ethica; Portuguese: ética.

Generally speaking, ethics are a philosophical discipline in philosophy that deals with identifying values which will guide both private and public human conduct. Far from being a simple synonym of morality, as is currently believed, ethics is the opposite in so far as the choice of values is not imposed by a specific set of rules, but rather freely chosen by the individual taking action. This distinction is essential because of its consequences for museums, since the museum is an institution, that is to say a phenomenon which exists by common agreement and which can be altered.

Within the museum, ethics can be defined as the discussion process aimed at identifying the basic values and principles on which the work of the museum relies. Ethics lead to the drawing up of principles set out in museums’ codes of ethics, of which the ICOM code is one example.

I-AM-A-MANGlenn Ligon’s Untitled (I AM A MAN), 1988 – National Gallery of Art –

1. Ethics are aimed at guiding a museum’s conduct. In a moral vision of the world, reality is subject to a moral order which determines the place occupied by each person. This order constitutes a perfection towards which each being must strive by fulfilling his function perfectly, and this is known as virtue (Plato, Cicero, etc.). By contrast, the ethical vision of the world is based on a chaotic and disorganised world, left to chance and without any fixed bearings. Faced with this universal disorder, individuals are the only judge of what is best for them (Nietzsche, Deleuze); they alone must decide for themselves what is good or bad. Between these two radical positions that are moral order and ethical disorder, a middle road is conceivable in so far as it is possible for people to agree freely among themselves to recognise common values (such as the principle of respect for human beings). Again this is an ethical point of view which on the whole governs the way modern democracies determine values. This fundamental distinction still influences the division between two types of museums or two ways of operating even today. Some very traditional museums such as fine arts museums seem to follow a preestablished order: their collections appear to be sacred and define a model of conduct by different actors (curators and visitors), and a crusading spirit in the way they carry out their tasks. On the other hand, some museums, perhaps more attentive to the practical reality of people’s lives, do not consider themselves subject to absolute values and continuously reassess them. These may be museums more in touch with real life, such as anthropology museums, striving to grasp an ethnic reality which is often fluctuating, or so-called “social museums” for which questions and practical choices (political or social) are more important than the religion of collections.

jennyjtaylor_Social-Issue-Posters-31-658x1024Jenny Taylor, graphic design

2. While the distinction between ethical and moral is quite clear in French and Spanish, the term in English is more open to confusion (éthique in French can be translated as ethic or also as moral in English). Thus the English version of the ICOM Code of Ethics (2006) in appears in French as Code de déontologie (Código Deontológico in Spanish). The vision expressed in the code is, however clearly prescriptive and normative (and very similar to that expressed in the codes of the UK Museums Association and the American Association of Museums). It is laid out in eight chapters which identify basic measures to allow the (supposedly) harmonious development of the museum institution within society: (1) Museums take care of the protection, documentation and promotion of the natural and cultural heritage of humanity (institutional, physical and financial resources needed to open a museum). (2) Museums which maintain collections hold them in trust for the benefit of society and its development (issues of acquisition and deaccession of collections). (3) Museums hold primary evidence for building up and furthering knowledge (deontology of research or of collecting evidence). (4) Museums provide opportunities for the appreciation, understanding and management of the natural and cultural heritage (deontology of exhibiting). (5) Museums hold resources that provide opportunities for other services and benefits to the public (issues of expertise). (6) Museums work in close collaboration with the communities from which their collections originate as well as with those that they serve (issues of cultural property). (7) Museums operate in a legal manner (respect for the rule of law). (8) Museums operate in a professional manner (professional conduct and conflicts of interest).

3342268286848_2sf0g51h_lSpiral Staircase, National Museum of Paris

3. The third impact on museums of the concept of ethics is its contribution to the definition of museology as museal ethics. From this perspective, museology is not a science in development (as proposed by Stránský), because the study of the birth and the evolution of museums does not follow the methods of both human and natural sciences in so far as it is an institution that is malleable and can be reshaped. However, as a tool of social life, museums demand that endless choices are made to determine the use to which they will be put. And precisely here, the choice of the ends to which this body of methods may be subjected is none other than a choice of ethics. In this sense museology can be defined as museal ethics, because it is ethics which decide what a museum should be and the ends to which it should be used. This is the ethical context in which it was possible for ICOM to build a deontological code for the management of museums, a deontology which constitutes a code of ethics common to a socio-professional category and serving it as a paralegal framework.

3432083714645_k737D4xD_lDesign Museum Holon


Resources: André Desvallées and François Mairesse
And the assistance of the ICOM International Committee for Museology

Main image and for social networks: Rene Magritte Museum @ Brussels