The International Council of Museums ICOM as an Authority on Museum Ethics Martina Lehmannová

The first issue of Qartal published an extensive text by Marek Pokorný in the Topic Q section entitled The Long Path to a Code of Ethics, and subtitled Do Czech Museums and Galleries Take Their Social Responsibility Seriously? After three reactions to the text from major Czech galleries in the second issue, we are now continuing the theme with another contribution. Martina Lehmannová, Executive Director of the Czech ICOM Committee, has fourteen years of experience working for ICOM, the International Council of Museums. It is from this perspective that she offers her views on the topic of the code of ethics and the future of museum institutions. The ICOM’s general conference will take place in Prague in 2022.

The Moral Imperative

Is there any choice left for museum workers today but to set an example? To uphold ethical and moral principles, to approach what we do with integrity and honour? It is not just a question of how many exhibitions we prepare, catalogues we write, works from our collections we restore, and whether we perform a thousand other activities. What matters is how we approach our work. The work of a museum worker is demanding, but also prestigious. Museums are one of the important media that shape our view of the past and present as well as our view of the future. Compared to newspapers, television and the Internet, museums have a great advantage in the three-dimensionality of the objects they collect, curate, interpret and present to the public. Museum workers have a huge influence on society. With this power comes responsibility. Due to various circumstances, especially poor funding, we question some actions and are forced to make various compromises. But moral integrity must be paramount for us.

The ICOM Code of Ethics

The discussion about the need to create a code of ethics for museum workers started in the 1970s, when the Czechoslovakian museologist, Jan Jelínek, was the head of the global organization ICOM. The Code of Ethics was adopted in 1986, as an official ICOM document. It is a reference tool for museums and their staff, setting out minimum standards of behaviour and professional conduct. By becoming a member of ICOM, each member commits to abide by this Code. The Code of Ethics has a well-developed structure and serves very well as a basic document. It is not, and never will be, a manual of conduct. It is not a binding document and its principles are not legally enforceable. It is up to us and our internal approach to the matter.

The Czech Situation

Museum and gallery staff in the Czech Republic perceive the debate on the ethics of museum work as important and the intensity of this debate has recently increased. In 2013, the Czech ICOM Committee was the first of the national committees to have the ICOM Code of Ethics for Natural History Museums translated into Czech. In 2014, it published a special edition of three codes of ethics: the ICOM Code of Ethics, the ICOM Code of Ethics for Natural History Museums and the Document on the Profession of Conservator-Restorer, which was drafted in 2011, on the initiative of Czech museum workers and conservator-restorers at the Association of Museums and Galleries of the Czech Republic. The publication of the three documents on ethics was accompanied by theoretical texts written by national and international authorities of the time: Martin Schärer, Chair of the ICOM ETHCOM, the Standing Committee on Museum Ethics, Eric Dorfman, Chair of the ICOM NATHIST, the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Natural History, and the author of this text, Martina Lehmannová, Chair of the Czech ICOM Committee, Ivo Štěpánek, Chair of the Commission of Conservator-Restorers of the Association of Museums and Galleries of the Czech Republic and former member of the Czech ICOM Committee, and Pavel Hlubuček, Director of the Department of Museums and Galleries of the Ministry of Culture. In November 2019, a museological seminar, Museum and Ethics, was organised by the Masaryk Museum in Hodonín in cooperation with the Association of Museums and Galleries of the Czech Republic. There is also a lively debate on the ethics of museum work among young museum professionals, especially on the website, which reflects current global issues.


An important value that runs throughout the entire text of the ICOM Code of Ethics like a golden thread is responsibility. Few institutions in the world have to learn to cope with such a huge degree of responsibility as museums. Museums have a responsibility towards natural and cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible. Social responsibility towards visitors is of utmost importance, but also towards those who may not set foot in a museum in their lifetime. Museums document society as a whole, regardless of their actual clients, sponsors, and founders. This puts a lot of pressure on public institutions in particular, which are best placed to be aware of what the public interest is and to not cross the line into biased support of private or political interests. It is clearly unethical for a state-established institution to provide space for the presentation of an entity that may be popular but is also notorious because of its problematic relationship with the payment of taxes to public budgets. A supreme example of impropriety in this regard was the Louvre + Airbnb 2019 event whereby the Louvre provided the winner of the Airbnb lottery with the opportunity to spend a night in the Louvre, including dinner in front of the Mona Lisa and a bed under the Pyramid. Museums simply have to consider the sources of their money. In addition to companies that plunder public budgets, there may be companies that plunder natural heritage. From ICOM’s point of view, it is totally unacceptable for museums to be involved in any way in the trade of cultural and natural heritage. The staff of auction houses cannot become members of ICOM. It is absolutely unacceptable for museum staff to be involved in shaping the art market, whether legal or, heaven forbid, illegal. The fact that some museum staff can resort to selling off collections on the black market is an example of the total failure of the system. The issues of illegal trade in objects of cultural value, illegal archaeological excavations, and the devastation of objects of cultural value represent a significant part of the ICOM ETHCOM agenda.

Museums also have a responsibility towards the inside of their institutions – towards their staff, their colleagues. They have to provide them, as much as possible, with quality facilities for their work. On the other hand, the employees also owe a duty of loyalty to their institution and its management.

In an era of information wars Museums are also responsible for passing on information and knowledge about the collections in their care. They are responsible for the intellectual development of society, they contribute to knowledge and understanding. They are the most democratic educational institutions in the world – open to all without distinction and accessible on the basis of the will and free choice of each individual. They are platforms for critical debate and should be able to moderate it. The role of museums is to put things into context and explain. They must also be able to be critical of their own collections or representatives. What was considered exemplary in the past may no longer seem so today. But every object in the collection has been accepted into it not only to document but also to explain. We must be aware of this whenever we discuss problematic topics from our past, whether we are talking about Napoleon, World War II, slavery or colonialism. It is not possible for museums to turn a blind eye to certain topics. If museums understand the position that they have, they will become an indispensable part of the struggle in the information war that has crept into our society and infiltrated absolutely everything. Museums
can contribute to balancing the flood of misinformation, hoaxes and trolling on the Internet. They are best placed to do so; they can rely on the narrative value of collection objects, their factual authenticity, and they also have a long track record of communicating with the public, who regard them as trustworthy institutions, able to offer a critical perspective on our past and present. However, they can only achieve such a position if they maintain their moral and ethical integrity.