Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Deaccessioning – a subject fraught with issues

Mention deaccessioning in most museum circles and you will be greeted with a response along the lines of 'wash your mouth out'. Although most Collection Management Policies include guidelines on deaccessioning, it is generally acknowledged that it is a brave museum director that proceeds to do so. Why so? Fundamentally I think it comes from an ethical view that items are left to public collections for the public good, and deaccessioning is unethical as it potentially 'sells' them off to the highest bidder. As a result museums associations codes of ethics have strict rules around deaccessioning in that the use of proceeds from deaccessioning can only be used for future acquisitions and the direct care of collections (UK Museums Association Code of Ethics 6.13 Refuse to undertake disposal principally for financial reasons). This is meant to make sure that a museum does not sell off its prize possessions to fund the general operations of the organisation.

However in putting the case for systematic deaccessioning, I heard Dr Nick Merriman, the director of Manchester Museums, talking very articulately on the subject at the Museums Association Conference in Bournemouth in 2006. His views are well summarised in 'What Are Museums For?', a conference essay by Dr. Christine Ovenden, as follows:

When the issue of disposal was raised as a direct corollary to this discussion, Merriman’s position was clear:

I think we should challenge the notion of retention in perpetuity, and instead think about reviewing collections after a certain period of time for their continuing potential. And we should be bold enough to dispose of them by transfer to other locations if they hold less potential than material subsequently collected. I should stress that potential should be assessed on a wide range of criteria including scholarly potential, which would be to do with documentation and association, as well as artistic qualities. This is essential if museums are to continue to collect – which I passionately believe they should do in order to reflect changing society; and I believe they can only continue to collect if they do so in a sustainable manner.

Thus deaccessioning did not necessarily imply destruction, whether through disposal or attrition from neglect, it could mean transferring elsewhere. Furthermore, it meant shifting the mindset away from permanent ownership and more towards reorientation and collaboration. It was also Merriman’s view that, ‘removal to a museum can destroy meaning and context in many cases, and therefore for a lot of recent material, short-term loans and recording might be much more appropriate – the idea of the distributed national collection might then truly embrace the whole nation’.

Nearer to home I have been impressed how the Western Plains Cultural Centre in Dubbo, NSW has handled the issue. Formed out of the Dubbo Museum, the director, Brigette Leece, resolved to use the moment of transformation and reinvention to dispose of material that had no relevance to the local area, which turned out to be almost one third of the collection. The process she has successfully followed with no negative feedback was to:
a) identify these items and set them aside for two years before any action was taken
b) make widely known that the process was underway through local media
c) wait until the new Museum was open in 2008, so people could see why the items were not relevant
d) offer the items either back to the donors or to other local museums, as a result of which Gulgong Museum took a substantial number

And a final word on the issue, which prompted the blog. In the latest American Museums Association journal Mark Gold puts up a case for allowing deaccessioning to happen directly for financial gain. He writes that the current financial crisis will potentially see the demise of some museums, and that the rules should be changed to allow for deaccessioning to be used for the urgent financial needs of a museum.

Will be interesting to see what response he gets.

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