Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Book Review - Code of Ethics for Museum Friends and Volunteers

Two years ago I wrote a review of the Canadian Museums Association Ethics Guidelines, and by review I mean I shared highlights. Having completed our first round of the Museum Evaluation Program the previous summer, we learned that a lot of museums had either made up their own code of ethics or had nothing at all in place. So we figured we should highlight the national ethics guidelines and encourage boards of directors, staff, and volunteers to embrace it as their own.

My latest trip to our reference library was a quick and easy read through a different code of ethics, this one for Museum Friends and Volunteers. In case you are unaware, there is an international community of "friend groups" of museums. These are organizations of volunteers and museum supporters who strive to help out the institutions that we all know and love, and to educate people about the value of heritage. In Canada we have the Canadian Federation of Friends of Museums as a national body, and a number of museums have established Friends of [insert museum name here] groups.
If your museum has a core group of volunteers, or a "friend group" that supports it, you might want to pass this resource along to them.

The basic values and principles will sound very familiar if you have read the CMA guidelines. The CMA's section on employer/employee relations is written in such a way to include volunteers, and discusses issues like conflict of interest, training and support, and opportunities for providing input to the powers that be.

This code of ethics spends a bit more time talking about the mutually beneficial nature of the museum/friend relationship. It notes in the introduction that friends and volunteers of the museum are at the "heart of the museum's public", ie can give input on public perceptions and issues while being one step further removed from board members and staff.

The ethics are organized into seven sections, the first providing key definitions and explanations of the terms used throughout the document. Section two is about status and mandate, and reminds that friends and volunteers should provide enthusiastic and generous support without any expectation of financial or other benefits aside from "the satisfaction of contributing to the maintenance and development of the institution...and...the public which it serves".

The third section is where the ethics may seem to differ from how some museums operate. It recommends that the friends "be organized within a structured framework". This doesn't necessarily mean they need to form a new society or incorporate, although some museums do have external supporting societies, but that having an organized structure to volunteerism can make life easier (we have a few volunteer-related resources on our website). Having a link to the museum's management, through a volunteer coordinator or other set method is vital. This is how work plans and terms of reference and other arrangements can be made. One of the trends that we see in volunteerism is a desire for clearly defined projects and goals. People don't want to sign up for an ambiguous alliance. They want to know what is expected of them, and how their contributions will impact the organization and community.

In the fourth section (duties) we are reminded of the professional nature of museology and the need to adhere to standards of practice. It outlines the need for friends to adhere to the policies and procedures of the institution, to respect confidentiality, avoid conflicts of interest, among other issues. In a nutshell, friends respect the organizational structure of the institution and operational guidelines set by the board and/or management.

Section five discusses areas of operation, and in my opinion could have the sub-heading "don't step on toes!" It reminds that the support provided by friends needs to align with the unique mission and goals of the institution, not overlap with staff work (unless friends are invited to assist on projects), and that job descriptions and staff responsibilities are to be respected at all times. We are again reminded of the importance of clearly defined tasks.

The sixth section is all about the museum rather than the friends. It outlines 5 key expectations of the institution: recognition of the support and contributions made by friends, providing friends with support (including resources) to pursue common goals, ensuring that friends feel a sense of belonging and solidarity with the museum, keeping friends updated about new goals, plans, programs, etc., and finally, encouraging and assisting friends in participating in professional development opportunities.

The final section of the code of ethics is about the organized group, or association, of friends. So if a separate society has been set up to support the museum, the group needs to try and expand their membership and reach, operate fairly and democratically, share  knowledge and experience, and cooperate with other groups and organizations. Even if you don't have a separate society, I think you'll agree that having friends and volunteers who are dedicated to these actions is very beneficial.

And yay for online resources, you can read this booklet online!