Thursday, January 19, 2012

That ongoing de-accessioning debate

Nothing like kicking off the year with that old chestnut, unwanted objects and collections!

The Newark Museum has made the headlines in Philadelphia on the issue of having to store and insure loaned objects that they will never exhibit and would love to be rid of. The article  picks up on the fact that 40 US states have legislation in place whereby collecting institutions can take legal possession of objects (and thus decide what to do with them) if they send registered letters to the last known address of the owner and publish notices in newspapers signaling the end of the loan, and receive no response.

And that is a good lead into an article I came across in the UK Art Fund’s latest excellent magazine by Sir Mark Jones, the recently retired director of the V&A. Jones writes about the impulses that drive the collection of art and where museums fit into this. He likens museums to the modern day equivalents of cathedrals, which in the Middle Ages vied for and elaborately housed relics to attract pilgrims.

People collect, he argues, not to fulfill basic needs but chiefly to assert status, to establish rank and power. Museums then become the place where these collections are deposited both to advertise the wealth of the collector, and also to place those objects out of rivals’ reach. Museums then have to tread a fine line between making these collections available and advertising the power and wealth of those who made them.

Many such collections come with stipulations that the collection not only can never be sold but should remain on display. The latter point is clear, namely to continue to bring prestige to the collector, which obviously cannot happen when it languishes in the store.

But the former point is one that is critical to the de-accessioning debate and helps to explain the problems and anxiety that such a process creates. Collectors have made donations on the basis that by doing so they place their collection beyond the reach of other collectors. If museums start a process of de- accession and selling works of art, they no longer can provide collectors with the assurances they need on this front.

Incidentally on the same theme, Patricia Andersen, Editor of Australian Art Review, makes some good points on how collections have evolved in her Editorial for the latest Jan-Feb 2012 edition, reinforcing how many museums in the western world began by providing a public face for private collections. It is, by the way, a great edition focusing on the great regional collections in Bathurst, Bendigo, Perc Tucker, Townsville and Broken Hill.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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