Museum studies professionals resigned from the AAM Professional Network after the organization asked them to sign a code of ethics that included loyalty and compliance clauses. (image by Hyperallergic)

An American Alliance of Museums (AAM) volunteer committee voted unanimously to resign from the organization’s Museum Studies Professional Network (MSN) after its chair was asked to sign a code of ethics that mandated “loyalty” and limited public criticism of AAM.

The six-member MSN leadership committee, comprising professors and directors of museum studies programs at universities nationwide, stated in a public resignation announcement on Facebook that they have an “ethical duty” to their field and students above AAM, and members of the group told Hyperallergic that the code violated their academic freedom. The leaders posted the announcement last Friday, October 28, four days after sending their collective resignation letter to AAM.

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, an AAM spokesperson sent the following statement: “AAM supports individuals’ academic freedom and freedom of speech. A ‘Duty of Loyalty’ and ‘Duty of Compliance’ are standard components of a nonprofit Code of Ethics for its volunteer leadership, who often have access to sensitive or confidential information, or authority to speak or make decisions on behalf of the organization.”

“We do understand that this document may not be something that all are comfortable signing, and we respect the former leadership’s decision to resign and appreciate their contributions,” the statement says.

MSN is part of AAM’s Professional Network program, a group of 20 volunteer committees that provide a space for museum professionals to share insights about their fields. They include committees dedicated to curatorial work, collections stewardship, media and technology, security, and other areas. MSN convenes at regional and national AAM conferences, and it had around 1,000 members as of 2020, although not all of them are active.

This was the first time that AAM asked its Professional Network (PN) leaders to sign a code of ethics. AAM conducted an external review of the program this year, the results of which are still being finalized, that concluded these committees must be governed by the same legal structures that preside over the general organization. Part of this legal structure meant making the committee leaders sign a code of ethics based on that of the AAM Board of Trustees.

MSN leaders took issue with multiple clauses in the document, including a section titled “Duty of Loyalty,” a “legal duty [that] requires a Professional Network Leader to put AAM’s interests above other personal and professional interests.”

“Our loyalty is to the students,” Mickey Maley, an MSN leader and program director of Museum Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, told Hyperallergic.

Beyond the loyalty clause, however, MSN leaders were hesitant to sign onto other provisions, including a section under “Duty of Compliance” that required Professional Network leaders to “avoid criticism outside of AAM of the policies and decisions of the PN or the AAM or of any AAM Board member, Officer, staff member or PN official.” Laura-Edythe Coleman, an MSN leader who directs the Arts Administration and Museum Leadership program at Drexel University in Philadelphia, described the provision as a “gag order.”

Jennifer Kingsley, MSN secretary and director of the Museums and Society program at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, said that signing the document would have limited her academic freedom to pursue research and scholarship. Given the ethical conflict between her responsibilities to scholarship and her students and loyalty and confidentiality to AAM, she felt that she “did not have a choice but to resign.”

Maley explained why the clause posed a problem for the Museum Studies PN in particular, which has the distinction of being comprised of educators. He said that free exchange and critique of ideas are critical to the entire museum field, which needs constructive criticism to grow and foster discourse.

Kingsley said she is currently inclined to operate informally with her colleagues, and that there is no logical, perfect fit for where the museum studies leaders should go. However, she pointed to the National Emerging Museum Professionals Network (NEMPN), a former AAM Professional Network that has since branched off, as an option. The NEMPN does not have an AAM-style code of ethics, and among other advocacy efforts, it is now campaigning for salary transparency in the industry and for abolishing unpaid internships. Kingsley also mentioned the National Council on Public History as another potential home for her group.

“Academic freedom and freedom of speech are key tenets of professorship,” Coleman told Hyperallergic. “I think I have a duty to speak publicly when our institutions fail us.”

Editor’s note 11/4/22 5:15pm EDT: This article has been updated to include comment from AAM.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.