Protocols for museums: a summary

Registered and accredited museums are required to keep copies of relevant and current protocols and to develop their own policies, procedures and programs with reference to them. Accredited museums are also required to provide appropriate information to workers to assist them in understanding and working in line with relevant protocols including those relating to Indigenous arts and cultures. 

This document provides an introduction to, and summary of, the main principles and issues dealt with in current protocols relating to museum practice and museum collections. The protocols summarised in this document are:

  • AICCM Code of Ethics
  • Burra Charter
  • Return of cultural objects 
  • Continuous cultures: ongoing responsibilities: guideline for working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage
  • Cultural diversity policy
  • Women’s policy for Museum Programs and practice
  • Gay and lesbian policy
  • Museums and sustainability


Australian Institute for Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM)

Code of Ethics and practice

The purpose of this code of ethics is to provide guidelines, primarily for accredited conservators, to ensure that in all their professional work they emphasise the protection and conservation of cultural material. The guidelines should also be applied to all moveable heritage held by museums. Some of the principles at the heart of the Code of Ethics are:

  • Informed respect for cultural property, its unique character and significance and for the people or person who created it.
  • Unswerving respect for the physical, historic, aesthetic and cultural integrity of the object.
  • Maintaining the highest standards in all aspects of conservation including examination, research, documentation, conservation advice, treatment, training and education.
  • Recognising skills and limitations when devising and implementing conservation measures.

The Code of Practice document is particularly directed at professionals working in the field and provides guidelines for professional conduct as well as for the processes of examination and scientific investigation, preventative conservation, treatment and documentation. It also provides brief statements relating to conduct in emergency situations (such as disaster planning).


International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS)

Australia ICOMOS charter for the conservation of places of cultural significance.

This charter is better known as The Burra Charter. It was drawn up by the Australian branch of the ICOMOS and given its name because it was adopted at a meeting at Burra Burra, SA in 1979. Based on the 1966 Venice charter, it deals with the principles and procedures to be followed in the conservation of heritage places. The definition of heritage places covers buildings, monuments, rock art sites, gardens, roads, industrial or mining sites, archaeological sites and even entire regions.

Conservation in the context of the charter means the ways in which a place is looked after in order to retain its meaning to people. It is based on respect for the ‘fabric’ meaning the physical make-up of the place and the meaning of the place to communities.

Cultural significance refers to the meanings and values of a place to people including the aesthetic, historical, scientific or social value for past present and future generations.

A number of principles are inherent in the Charter including:

    • That there are places worth keeping for future generations. These places will enrich their lives and assist them to understand the past.
    • Cultural significance is embodied in many elements of a place including its fabric, its setting and contents, associated documents and its meaning to people through the way it has been used and the connections people have with it.
    • Significance is best understood and conserved through accurate record keeping, research and analysis so that any decisions about management and interpretation are well informed and thought out.

The charter aims to encourage communities to be involved in caring for places of cultural significance and ensuring that they are protected and used appropriately. It advocates that great care be taken with any decisions which might change a place. If repairs and maintenance are required, these need to be done as minimally and sensitively as possible and always in accordance with a written conservation policy.


National Museum of Australia

Return of cultural objects policy

This policy provides a guide to dealing with and making decisions in relation to requests for return of cultural objects. Cultural objects are defined as ‘objects that are produced by people or that have particular cultural significance to people.’ It is based on a number of international policies and procedures developed specifically to deal with the return of property collected illegally or unethically. The NMA policy was developed to reflect and build upon current international thinking. The policy excludes the return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander human remains and secret/sacred and private material which are covered by separate policies.

The policy recognises that from time to time the museum will be approached about the return of items and will have to negotiate competing claims for ownership. It acknowledges that the museum may be informed or discover that certain objects have been acquired:

    • without free and informed consent of the custodian
    • in contravention of tradition or custom
    • through a person legally or culturally unauthorised to dispose of it
    • through an illegal act or war or aggression
    • through a process, or with a history, that renders it unfit for the museum’s collection.

The policy states that the museum is to consider the merits of each case individually and impartially to ascertain whether each object is ‘fit or unfit for the collection’ based on the information given by the person applying for its return. In the policy ‘unfit’ refers to the attributes of the object ‘including, but not limited to, ethical, moral, legal, social, religious and physical’ attributes.

The museum must then establish whether the object has been acquired in an ‘unfit’ manner such as through the means listed above, whether it has legal title over the object and what legal and ethical rights the person applying for return has.

If an object is approved for return as a result of these considerations, the museum’s established policies and procedures for de-accessioning are to be followed.

The following four Museums Australia policies were developed to establish ways of operating that acknowledge and accept that diversity and difference are defining factors of the Australian experience.

By following these policies, incorporating the ideas and principles upon which they are based and following some of the specific guidelines museums will develop collections and displays which support and promote inclusion, diversity, tolerance and acceptance. By doing this they will help to educate their visitors and open their minds to other ways of seeing and telling history.


Museum’s Australia

Continuous cultures: ongoing responsibilities: principles and guidelines for Australian museums working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage.

Registered and accredited museums are required to acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which the museum is sited. See the Help Sheet on Indigenous acknowledgements: examples for assistance with writing an acknowledgement. The History Trust also encourages museums to find ways to incorporate the principles and recommendations of the Museums Australia policy, Continuous cultures-ongoing responsibilities.

The precursor to this policy was developed in 1993 by the Council of Australian Museums Associations which later became Museums Australia. The policy was called Previous possessions: new obligations: policies for museums in Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and it provided, for the first time, principles and guidelines for museums holding Indigenous Australian cultural material. The key principle underpinning the document was recognition of the rights of Indigenous Australians to self-determination in relation to their cultural heritage.

In the year 2000 the policy was rewritten to take into account new legal, social and technical issues including

  • native title laws and processes
  •  the return of cultural objects
  • the recognition of intellectual property rights of Indigenous Australians
  • newly developing protocols for dealing with Aboriginal cultural heritage
  • changes in technology such as digitisation and corresponding growth in access to collections.

Launched in 2003, Continuous cultures, Ongoing responsibilities recognises

  • that museums do not own the Indigenous cultural heritage but are responsible for custodianship and care
  • the inherent value of stories and other intangibles associated with items
  • that contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural practices are equally as important as past practices and should be acknowledged in museum interpretation
  • the importance of creating ‘genuine relationships of recognition and reciprocity’ with traditional custodians of cultural heritage material held in museums.

The policy is divided into two parts – 1) principles and 2) guidelines for policies and procedures based on the principles. The purpose of the policy is to guide museums in developing their own specific procedures for dealing with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their heritage.

The principles include

  • Self determination: The right of Aboriginal people to self determination, particularly in relation to cultural heritage. This includes having authority over the protection of secret and sacred items.
  • Management and collections: The right and opportunity to have input into decisions about how museums store, conserve, research, interpret and display their cultural heritage. The recognition of the equal importance of stories connected to cultural materials.
  • Access: the right of Indigenous Australians to know what collections museums hold and for the relevant groups to determine who has access to them.
  • Assistance: the right of Indigenous Australians to seek assistance from museums to develop skills and knowledge about all areas of museum activity.
  • Employment and training: the recognition of the cultural skills of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the active encouragement of individuals to gain employment in the museum sector.
  • Policy formulation: the right to be involved in any policy decisions affecting their cultural heritage
  • Cultural and intellectual property rights: the recognition of these rights.
  • Reconciliation: as a fundamental principle governing the way museums develop relationships with Indigenous Australians and deal with their cultural heritage.

The guidelines in Section 2 provide a detailed outline of procedures and policies that should be followed in the management, interpretation and access to cultural heritage collections. They cover

  • Developing partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to ensure their involvement in all aspects of the care, management and interpretation of collections.
  • Acquiring collection items ethically and working with custodians with regard to controlled, appropriate and culturally sensitive storage, access and display.
  • Including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in decisions regarding the  care and preservation of cultural materials and involving them in all aspects of interpretation
  • Interpreting cultural heritage in ways that ‘promote cultural respect and understanding’ and ‘reflect the vital, diverse and contemporary nature of Australian Indigenous cultures’.
  • Ethical research practices and making sure that appropriate permissions for access are acquired.
  • Developing guidelines in tandem with communities to cover digitisation of collections and interpretation using new technologies such as multi-media.

The policy includes two separate sections which provide specific guidelines to dealing with ancestral remains and/or secret/sacred and other sensitive materials which may be held in some collections. In the vast majority of cases arrangements need to be made with Aboriginal communities for their repatriation.

Later sections of the policy include guidelines for employment and training of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, their representation on boards of management or advisory bodies and their involvement in policy development.

The policy emphasises the importance of developing relationships and communicating with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. ‘Reconciliation relies on the development of positive relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.’


Museums Australia

Cultural diversity policy

The policies of the present Commonwealth government affirm UNESCO’s Principles of multiculturalism. In summary these assert such rights as equality and ‘the right to live in a society free from barriers of race, ethnicity, culture, religion, language, gender and place of birth’ as well as obligations, such as that ‘all Australians should have an overriding and unifying commitment to Australia’.

Under the umbrella of these principles, the Cultural Diversity Policy is based on the premise that ‘all Australians have a right to see elements of their culture preserved and interpreted in museums.’ In both collection development and in devising their public programs, Australian museums are required to follow principles of inclusion, diversity and equity. Recognition of ownership of objects and community consultation about the preservation, use and display of objects are essential aspects of the policy as are promoting of ‘understanding, acceptance and tolerance of cultural difference.’

The importance of equity and diversity in the policy also relates to access to the museum and to staffing.


Museums Australia

Women’s policy for Museum Programs and practice

This policy recognises that the dominant groups in society have traditionally been represented in museums and that the valuable contribution of women has largely been neglected. The two principles upon which this policy is based are that 1. Women have an equal right to being represented in both museum collections and in interpretative programs, and 2. Women ‘are not an homogenous group but are differentiated by age, class, race, ethnicity, region, religion, sexuality and occupation.’

The policy covers equal representation of women on museum boards and the requirement for consultation with a diversity of women in all museum policies and programs. Both in collection development and in public programs museums should ensure that the diverse lives of women are represented. ‘Simplistic stereotypes should be avoided’ and women should not be defined only as wives, mothers and daughters but as individuals in their own right. In producing text for interpretation, museums should strive to use non-gender specific language. Museum items such as boats and cars should be referred to as ‘it’ rather than ‘she’, and the word ‘people’ should be used in place of ‘mankind’.

The policy also relates to the conservation of museum items stating that ‘the evidence of continued use by women should be considered before marks of wear and tear are effaced from artifacts.’


Museum’s Australia

Gay and lesbian policy

‘Stories of people struggling towards accepting, valuing and understanding themselves as lesbian and gay generally share one powerful motif – that each thought they were alone, the only one. On reaching an understanding of themselves as lesbian or gay, they then want to take their place in the community, to learn of their history, their culture, their sexualities, and of the lives of those who went before them’.

(Preamble, MA Gay and lesbian policy)

However, visiting a museum would generally provide no information on these subjects.

Museums Australia developed the Gay and lesbian policy ‘to address the needs of people who have been traditionally marginalised’. It recognses that the stories and history of gay and lesbian people and their communities have been virtually entirely ‘ignored, forgotten and repressed’. This policy seeks to redress this inequality in collection development and interpretation.

The policy also recognises that the ‘frank acceptance’ of these hidden histories, alternative ideas and stories by museum, can have a ‘positive effect’ on attitudes towards and understanding of these cultures by the rest of society. The policy does not ‘force’ museums to ‘convince the public of a particular point of view’ but rather encourages museums to open a dialogue with gay and lesbian groups and question their past assumptions and past practices.

In acquiring collection items from gay and lesbian sources the museum must be sensitive to the rights of individuals to privacy, the need to have appropriate consent and the need to acknowledge diversity and individual difference within the gay and lesbian community. Both in collection development and in exhibitions and public programs museums should consult and where possible actively involve community members. This might be through the employment of a liaison officer or through developing a consultative group. In all interpretation, museums should seek to challenge stereotypes of gay and lesbian people, represent their diversity and redress inaccuracies and omissions in existing historical interpretation.

The policy also covers areas of management, staff training and professional development and the need for work in these areas to increase awareness, understanding and acceptance of gay and lesbian workers and of the community at large.


Museums Australia

Museums and sustainability: guidelines for policy and practice in museums and galleries

The definition of sustainability in this policy is given as

Using, developing and protecting resources at a rate and in a manner that enables people to meet their current needs and also provides that future generations can meet their own needs

These needs include environmental, economic and community needs. Sustainability is not about keeping things the same, but about maintaining equity between generations. For example the policy explains that ‘a sustainable activity is one that can be carried out without damaging the long term health and integrity of natural and cultural environments’, thereby ensuring sufficient or increased resources for future generations.

The policy requires museums to follow principles of sustainability in all aspects of museum management, policies and practice. It encourages museums to recognise and promote the interdependence of sustainability and cultural life. Quality of life is determined by many factors including the state of the environment. Equally, maintaining and enhancing people’s social well-being is integral to making sustainability a reality.

One of the primary roles for museums is that of contributing to education about sustainability – raising awareness and providing advocacy. Museums have many different connections with communities. They are therefore in a perfect position to showcase to the community their own efforts to develop sustainable practices. In this way they contribute to building public awareness and sharing practical knowledge. They also educate their own staff.

The policy provides guidelines for developing and implementing sustainable operational practices in all areas including resource management, decision-making and policy development. Museums are encouraged to move away from any unsustainable practices. When acting locally, museums should think globally and consider their decisions in a wider context.

The policy shows how sustainability can be incorporated into many varied aspects of museum activity including

  • Ensuring sustainable development and management of natural and cultural heritage collections. Museums need to recognise both the inherent value of their collections to future generations and the need to collect, conserve and document collections in ways that take into account the long term obligations and liabilities they are setting up.
  • Ensuring sustainable goals for collection management and access. This includes being aware of the capacity of storage areas, accessibility of conservation services and the environmental cost of operating storage and display areas.
  • Through interpretation, showcasing success stories in exhibitions, co-ordinating research and discussion, emphasising the interdependence of the natural environment, the economy and cultural and social life.
  • Promoting sustainable industries through procurement of museum supplies. Using ‘green’ and ‘eco-friendly’ products, choosing products with recyclable packaging and/or products with recycled content.
  • Waste and energy management - using environmentally sensitive practices such as recycling waste, sourcing ‘green power’ and using the most energy efficient electrical products such as 4 star rated electrical equipment and energy efficient lighting. The policy suggests developing an exhibition program that can include recycling of display props and furnishings.
  • The design and construction of new museum buildings should be based on sustainable construction and building practices and eco-friendly materials. They should use solar or other forms of renewable energy, incorporate rain water and grey water collection and usage, and be surrounded by appropriate plantings to assist in developing an appropriate micro-climate.

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