Responding to the Museum Association's draft Code of Ethics

The Museums Association has been consulting to revise its Code of Ethics, and the new draft code is currently open for consultation until 7 August. The Art Not Oil coalition has been engaging with some museums on the specific issue of whether they should be taking money from oil companies. This briefing provides an overview of aspects of the draft Code that are relevant to this question, and suggests some ways in which the Code could be strengthened. It is intended to help anyone who would like to see museums take a stronger ethical line on sponsorship and climate change engage with the consultation process.

The revision of the MA Ethics Code is welcome, because it hasn’t been fully evaluated since 2002, and a great deal has changed in the world since then, not least the increase in severe climate change impacts. The Code is important because the MA represents professional standards for the museum sector, and most of the institutions that currently have oil sponsorship deals are museums (including the British Museum, the Science Museum and Tate). The Code also applies to anyone working with museums, including artists, freelancers and companies providing services.  

The MA held an initial consultation earlier this year, which informed their new draft Code. They said that “the range of responses we have had from across the sector demonstrates that there is a real desire to engage with the growing range of ethical issues that museums face”. The draft Code is up for discussion now and the final text will be put to members at the MA conference in November. 
We at Art Not Oil were interested to see that the MA has used two images of protests against BP sponsorship of the British Museum, on both its pages about the consultation. However, the draft Code doesn’t actually refer to oil sponsorship, although it has been updated to embrace commercial sponsorship in general. You might think that this aspect should be firmed up, or you might have views on how the wider context of oil, and environmental and social justice, could be better acknowledged. We encourage you to go to this link and have your say. It is open to anyone interested in museums, and you don’t have to comment on every point. 

Here are some pointers to some relevant sections, and suggestions for comments you might like to make. You might want to be encouraging of some points, while suggesting ways the ethical implications of decisions could be made more explicit. For example, under Interpretation 6.3 is the excellent point: ‘Strive for editorial integrity and remain alert to the pressure that can be exerted by particular interest groups, including lenders and funders’


1. Commercial Partnership and Sponsorship

The most relevant section to the question of oil sponsorship is 19.5. ‘Carefully consider offers of financial support from commercial organisations and other sources. Exercise due diligence in understanding the ethical standards of commercial partners with a view to maintaining public trust and integrity in all museum activities. Consider refusing support from a partner where this might constitute a conflict of interest. Clearly define and agree the relationship between the museum and its partners to manage any influence on the museum’s reputation or activities.’ 

This is sound advice, and is much better than before. However, you might want to suggest stronger or more precise wording. For example, as well as some sponsorship constituting a ‘conflict of interest’ it may entirely undermine the museum’s values of stewardship, and conflict with its commitments on the environment. 

You could suggest an additional clause, such as ‘Consider defining a policy for your practice or institution that defines acceptable and unacceptable types of sponsorship’ OR ‘Consider whether certain industries and the ethical questions around their business activity are suitable supporters for contemporary institutions.' 


2. The Environment

You might wish to point out that leaving the Environment to the end of the Code, at point 21, devalues it as an ethical topic. It has not been mentioned at all previously in the text. The first point (of only two) could be praised for noting that ‘a museum can set a strong example’. This sentence could be strengthened: ‘Make best use of resources, use energy and materials responsibly and minimise waste’ by adding ‘and ensure that funding does not come from environmentally-damaging sources.’ 

The second point is about economic vitality, rather than environmental issues per se. You could make your own suggestion for stronger points here about the ethical responsibility of museums to work towards a safer and more equitable planet. 


3. A matter of principle

The MA introduces three new principles to its Code: Access and public engagement, Stewardship and Integrity. You may want to pick up on these: 

  • On access, you might comment on how oil companies and climate change impact on the agency of communities to access and steward culture, in particular migrant and Indigenous communities. 
  • The duty involved in stewardship is to ensure that heritage can be cared for for future generations into posterity, but this is threatened by climate change and other impacts of an oil culture. 
  • Integrity should mean scrupulous consideration of ethics before accepting sponsorship by companies that have been exposed as environmental criminals and are using the sponsorship relationship to bolster their social licence to operate. 

4. Source communities

Section 14 lists ways to respect wishes and rights of people who contributed to collections, including heirs, descendants and representatives. One way noted is 14.6 to ‘Specify agreements over matters such as funding, copyright, site preparation and maintenance’. You might want to suggest a specific mention such as ‘particularly where corporate activity has negatively affected these peoples’


5. Leadership and governance

Point 19.1 is ‘Act in the public interest. Make prudent use of resources and maximise the benefit that the public derives from all activities. Account fully and openly to the public about how money is raised and spent.’ This is worth praise and encouragement. You could suggest an addition to the last sentence such as ‘including from private donors and commercial sponsors’


Do let us know what points you would add, or what contribution you have made. Tweet about it using the hashtag #MuseumEthics. You can also email us at

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