Sharon Heal challenges a museum chair’s view that ethics are a matter of ‘emotion’.
David Glasser writes in his article Why ‘selling’ strategically is not ‘selling out’ that the museum sector’s codes of ethics are a matter of ‘emotion’ and are secondary to charity law. The Museums Association holds the Code of Ethics for Museums, and we dispute this characterisation of our sector’s ethics.
The disposal of items from museum collections has been a major topic of museum ethics for decades and is subject to clear and well-developed guidance set out in the Code of Ethics for Museums and the associated Disposal Toolkit. This guidance makes it very clear that disposal of items from collections on a curatorial basis is part of good collections management and is to be encouraged. Our Disposal Toolkit and Find an Object service enable good practice in this area.
However, it is widely accepted that museums should not generally sell items from collections for financial reasons. To do so could encourage trustees and those in charge of museums to sell from the collections they are responsible for and could put public collections of art and objects in the UK at risk. Sale for financial reasons must be subject to scrutiny – a process which is currently carried out by the Museums Association’s Ethics Committee.
Mr Glasser also states that charity law obliged him to sell from the Ben Uri Gallery’s collection. We recognise that museum ethics intersect with charity law. However, our Disposal Toolkit – which is supported by the Charity Commission – clearly states that charities have the right to dispose of cultural assets at less than full market value in order to keep the item in the public domain. Charity law does not oblige any charity to sell their art at auction.
We encourage any museum considering selling items for financial gain to follow the Code of Ethics, and to discuss with the Museums Association in advance of implementing any plans to sell.
Sharon Heal is Director of The Museums Association