A set of Ethical Clauses of Governance to protect and support museums and their staff

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CIMAM proposes a set of Ethical Clauses of Governance to protect and support museums and their staff in times of crises

  • These clauses are intended to address the growing vulnerabilities museums face in relation to interference, increasingly political, from their ‘Founders’ or ‘Governing Bodies’ which can undermine the Museum’s mission and values and their ability to operate with the curatorial independence required to create an open space in civil society.

Museum Watch Governance Management Project

In an increasingly volatile and risky environment of growing political interference in museum management that calls into question the neutrality of museums in their knowledge-sharing role and thus reduces their autonomy in professional decision-making, CIMAM's Museum Watch Committee developed a collaboration with INTERCOM to investigate this issue with researchers Ian King (University of the Arts London) and Annick Schramme (University of Antwerp) and noted in their reflections on crisis situations that the core of the problem was often a lack of clarity about governance. This research led to the publication Museum Watch Governance Management Project * (ICOM, 2022) – MWGMP hereafter – released on May 3, 2022. The set of clauses presented in this document results from that CIMAM/INTERCOM research.

The MWGMP report addresses the challenge of political pressures, as “museums themselves are seeking international recognition and support to strengthen their autonomy [,] this creates a tension with politicians who want to control what they are showing without being accused of censorship. (…) External assessments and internationally supported outlines for a code of conduct through governance principles, supported by a toolbox that is compelling, yet open to different solutions, can be a great strategy for tackling the issue of museums’ lack of autonomy” as Ian King and Annick Schramme state in the report.

The MWGMP concludes that specific Ethical Clauses of Governance can protect and support museums and their staff in times of crisis, and “can provide greater confidence for cross-museum cooperation and coordination, both at national and international levels” that “should create greater strength and solidarity, whereas its absence exposes individual museums to arbitrary influences from outside.”

The clauses that we hereby suggest intend to address “What we all believe to be basic principles of governance that we can convince everyone (including politicians) are essential for professional and sustainable development of museum staff so that they can effectively contribute to some of the most amazing institutions in the world,” comments Bart De Baere, in the chapter "On the Governance Issue: Focusing on the Relationship between Museums and their Governing Bodies" published in the MWGMP.

Ethical Clauses of Museum Governance

The new text presented here, the Ethical Clauses of Governance, has been drafted by CIMAM. It was endorsed by INTERCOM, which also gave additional input. It is meant to be a paper in preparation of the revision of the ICOM Ethical Code for Museums which is at hand. The text, however, also has a validity on its own behalf. Therefore, CIMAM make it here available, as a reference for governing bodies, museum staff and their interrelation.

The text begins with a general recommendation to enable stronger leadership and management practices within museums, identifying all the constituent positions that make up a museum and the relationships between them as a basis for ethical behavior.

It points out the three main actors that can make up the body of a museum, the Founders, the Governing Bodies, and the Director and staff, and notes that it is essential to be clear about each of their different roles. This general recommendation also stresses that it is crucial to define ethical principles and establish clearly who is responsible for applying and monitoring these principles in practice.

Following this prelude, the Ethical Clauses of Museum Governance provide recommendations for a good governance framework, summarized in these headlines:

  1. There should be clarity about the Museum's purpose and the governance framework under which it operates (Governance Act, bylaws...).
  2. The governance structure of the Museum should be specified with a clear outline of how it is established.
  3. Good governance should be constantly reviewed and monitored because it is fundamental to everything a museum does.
  4. Museums should operate with a clear set of policies that set out how problems or disagreements can be addressed.
  5. The role of the Governing Body is to support the Museum in fulfilling its core mission and purpose.
  6. The appointment of Museum Directors should be transparent and structured to ensure that candidates have the necessary expertise to fulfill the Museum's core mission and objectives, mission and values.
  7. Consistent with the new definition of a museum, the expanded role of the Museum should consider the concept of participatory governance.

The CIMAM Museum Watch Committee integrated by:

Bart de Baere, Director, M HKA— Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen. Antwerp, Belgium.
Sarah Glennie, Director, National College of Art and Design. Dublin, Ireland.
Calin Dan, Director, MNAC Bucharest—National Museum of Contemporary Art. Bucharest, Romania.
Malgorzata Ludwisiak, Chief Curator, Department of Modern Art National Museum in Gdansk, Gdansk, Poland.
Victoria Noorthoorn, Director, Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Eugene Tan, Director, National Gallery Singapore and Singapore Art Museum. Singapore.

CIMAM – International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, is an Affiliated Organization of ICOM.

CIMAM Museum Watch Committee
Museum Watch Governance Management Project (MWGMP)


As concluded from the Museum Watch Governance Management Project – MWC / INTERCOM [1]

1. General recommendation

To allow for stronger leadership and management practices within museums, museums should explicitly address all the constituent positions that are part of a museum, and the relationships between them, since this is both the precondition and the basis for ethical behavior. There are structurally three major actors that can make up the body of a museum:

- Founders, very often, but not always public authorities. The Founders set the mission and objectives of the Museum and can play a direct role in the governance of museums or delegate this oversight to a Governing Body (or Board.)

- Governing body (or Board) which are most commonly put in place by founders.

Founders and Governing Bodies can play an important role in ensuring the Museum adheres to high ethical standards. They can however undermine the position of the Museum if they are not operating within a clear governance framework.

- Directors and staff who may be aware of the ICOM ethical code but are vulnerable when this is not endorsed and followed by the governing authority they report to.

Clarity on the distinct role of each of these constituents is essential for good museum governance. This should encompass clarity on the division of responsibilities between each party, how each is accountable and to whom, and a map of where authority lies for key decisions. It is not only important to define ethical principles but also to state clearly who is responsible for implementing and monitoring these principles in practice.

2. Recommendations for a good governance framework:

2.1. There should be clarity on the purpose of the museum and governance framework it operates under (Government Act, bylaws…).

This should lay out the high-level purpose of the museum and the governance structure it operates under.

The governance framework should outline the process for any changes to the core purpose, mission and governance of the museum. This may seem obvious but it is a critical framework which can protect a museum from fundamental changes being implemented without due process.

2.2. The structure of governance for the museum should be specified with a clear outline of how this is put in place.

This can be the Museum reporting directly to Government/Government Agency or it can be through a Board/Governing Authority that reports back to Government. If there is a Board/Governing Authority the make-up of the Board and how they are nominated/elected needs to be specified. Good practice would suggest that appointments are made through a transparent process where members are selected for their ability to contribute to the objectives of the museum.

If the Museum reports directly to Government the nature of this oversight and accountability needs to be similarly clearly outlined.

As stated in the MWGMP, “All museum activities must be fulfilled in an ethical, effective, transparent, accountable and equitable way based upon principles that are shared by all constituents in the museum. This is the future reality for all public-funded museums.”[2] The adoption of a governance framework for an institution protects and supports museums and their staff in times of crisis and is a key point of reference to all stakeholders (both internal and external). The specifics of this will change from context to context but it is important that a museum operates with a clear, shared understanding of the principles that it operates under and the role that each constituent plays in meeting those principles.

Institutions may formulate their guiding principles into a code of conduct for the museum which outlines expectations, accountabilities and standards for all parties involved in the governance and operations of the museum.

2.3. Good governance should be constantly reviewed and monitored because it is central to everything that a museum does.

Good governance lays the groundwork for the professional standards that museums should hold themselves accountable for. “Governance (…) is not simply a set of rules or principles. It is a process, responding to the needs related to the age and phase within the life cycle of museums; a practice, dealing with the principles on a daily basis and being aware of the different roles of the governance bodies; and a state of mind, providing confidence, safety and security for all related parties and stakeholders (both internal and external) that formally and informally engage with cultural organizations and museums.”[3]

It is important that the new ethical code states that an active consideration of good governance should be central to museum activities.

2.4. Museums should operate with a clear set of policies that set out how issues or disagreements can be addressed.

These policies should also guide how any conflict between the Governing Body/Director/Staff/Audience is addressed.

For example, if the Governing Body Board has an issue with the performance of the Director this should be dealt with through a disciplinary process that allows natural justice for both sides and cannot lead to immediate dismissal without due process.

Policies should also allow for staff to bring a grievance against the institution to an external body.

2.5. The role of the Governing Body is to support the museum in fulfilling its mission and core purpose.

Support for the museum to fulfill its mission and purpose should respond to and take account of the specific circumstances facing the institution at a given time. The Governing Body and the Executive have a shared responsibility to ensure the continued feasibility and success of the Museum and the Governing Body should provide guidance and support to the Executive in making key strategic decisions that ensure a secure future for the Museum.

The Governing Body should operate with clear terms of reference that articulate their core responsibilities, authority and accountability. The terms of reference should also articulate the responsibilities, authority and accountability of the Executive and where this intersects with the Governing Authority. This framework helps to ensure that the Governing Body doesn’t get involved in the day to day running of the Museum and so undermine the work of the Executive.

The term of office for a member of the Governing Body should have clearly defined time limits and there should be a clear process to remove a member if their actions in any way undermine the mission and values of the museum.

Members of the Governing Body should undertake an induction and training during their term as required. The work of the Governing Authority should be subject to regular external and internal reviews.

2.6. The appointment of Museum Directors should be transparent and structured in a way that ensures that candidates have the expertise required to deliver the Museum’s mission and core objectives, mission and values. The process of appointment of the Museum Director should be organized by a Selection Panel that includes external industry experts and representatives of the Board/ Governing Authorities. It should be an external recruitment process with the role profile publicly advertised and clearly articulating the specialized knowledge and the different kinds of expertise required for the institution and the responsibilities and accountability of the Director.

2.7. In line with the new museum definition, the extended role of the museum should take into consideration the concept of participatory governance. Such a concept may include, for example, “seeing stakeholders (including sponsors and core audiences) as ambassadors of the museum, exploring succession planning by training and developing new stakeholders to join boards, and working with the community and bringing the community into the museum.”[4]

[1] Bart De Baere & Goranka Horjan, Eds., Museum Watch Governance Management Project (Paris: ICOM, 2022).

[2] Ibid., p. 40.

[3] Ibid., p. 4.

[4] Ibid., p. 37.

Museum Watch Governance Management Project (MWGMP)