With more than forty-five years in the museum field as a curator, director, consultant, museum studies educator, writer, and trustee, I have noticed that, in spite of a professed concern for the preservation of their collections, and in spite of the shock expressed when collections are lost to disastrous human or natural actions, museums are more than willing to engage in purposeful destruction of their collections.
Museums consciously trash things expected to be held in perpetuity for the public good by deaccessioning items without requiring preservation caveats of the next owner. This largely happens when museums sell items on the open market. To be sure, the vast majority of museum collections are secure for the moment. But as more and more institutions are overwhelmed by their expanding collections, and the cost of maintaining those collections, museum holdings will contract.
I have been fortunate enough that collection loss by outside forces in the museums where I have been a curator or director has not occurred (with the exception of a very large ship model on loan to another museum years ago). Yet I have caused depletion by my own overt and approved actions on the job when I have deaccessioned things commercially on the open market without restrictions.
Normally museums devote considerable resources to protecting their art, historic artifacts, and scientific specimens. Tens of thousands are employed in various museum jobs to help assure the retention of collections. These positions include curators, conservators, directors, collection managers, security, and maintenance staff. Though it appears museums are places for public engagement, enjoyment, education, and even entertainment, they are really safe-deposit boxes writ large and made accessible to the public. The mission of most museums is to acquire and preserve valued evidence of the human and natural universe for the long term. Since forever is hard to assure with any certainty, “in perpetuity” is the accepted phrase applied on the job.
Except for loss of life, the most alarming tragedy that a museum fears is the destruction of its collections. Those in positions of authority recoil at the thought of objects disappearing from these cherished stores of our shared culture. Think of the theft of thirteen pieces of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in 2003, and the ransacking of the Mosul Museum by isis in 2015—all events that continue to reverberate today.
With strict security measures on all fronts and at all levels, museums work ceaselessly to guarantee the safe handling, retention, and exhibition of their collections. This devotion applies when items are in storage, in galleries, on loan, or in transit. Only employees trained to touch collections are allowed to do so. They will use certain kinds of gloves along with containers, wrappings, and equipment designed to come in contact with objects in a secure way. The spaces within which items are contained will be controlled to minimize pollution, light, or physical and chemical atmospheric harm.
When not being physically handled, museum collections are under the watchful observance of dedicated security systems and assigned personnel. Objects are protected by a host of safety measures, both technological and physical. When an item is on display, the first line of defense is the ubiquitous “Please do not touch” sign. These are, of course, simple reminders for well-behaved visitors. Augmenting written warnings are locked display cases, unbreakable glazed barriers, low and indirect lighting for light-sensitive items, alarms, stanchions, climate-control systems, and guards. Rooms and buildings that contain collections are basically vaults fitted out with locks, sprinkler systems, optical and sound security equipment, and devices to reduce theft and natural trauma. Updates based on new security information lead to regular improvements and museums spend serious dollars ensuring their systems are state-of-the-art.
The discipline of conserving art and artifacts, which combines science with manual training, is far ahead of where it was even a few decades ago. Its impressive progress is unfolding in exciting ways. But the many protections that conservation affords may be for naught when items are deaccessioned. While preserving items for sale is left unmentioned in a museum’s mission statement, the sale of objects is commonplace. As practiced in the United States, unless there are ownership restrictions on objects, getting rid of unwanted collections is entirely legal. Moreover, it is accepted by all American museum-profession membership organizations, such as the American Alliance of Museums and the American Association for State and Local History. There are scant warnings about how the practice may contradict museum ethics regarding the survival of objects entrusted to their care.
In the United States, most museums are privately owned and operated charities. They are classified as 501(c)(3) tax-exempt entities, governed by boards of trustees on behalf of the general populace. The boards do not own the museums or their contents; trustees are volunteers. Most have no museum experience whatsoever. Optimally, they rely on professional staff to run the institutions they oversee. But trustees have the final authority for just about everything a museum does, including both how it manages its collections and how it decides to remove objects.
Though it is largely accepted within the profession, deaccessioning is still a controversial issue.
Though it is largely accepted within the profession, deaccessioning is still a controversial issue. The debate surrounding it surfaces with alarming frequency. For the most part, however, complaints are rarely directed at the practice itself, but at what happens if any profits realized from the sale of museum collections are “misused.” Furor tends to erupt only when income will cover operating expenses or capital and debt payments, rather than pay for future acquisitions.
Oddly, controversy about commercial deaccessioning sidesteps the fact that, unless the purchase is made by another museum, objects will probably be lost to the public forever. How does this practice align with the preservation imperative museums repeatedly embrace in all their actions and indeed by their very definition? Put simply: it does not.
Museum ethics is a popular issue these days. In regards to collections, the discussion tends to focus on the illegitimate ownership of things stolen from Jews by the Nazis that have found their way into museums, or objects in museums that were illicitly taken from countries once colonized by European nations. Rarely is destruction by deaccessioning a topic for debate.
Try and find out what happened to the items sold at the auctions at Christie’s or Sotheby’s after the hammer comes down. Ask the selling museums and chances are slim they will be able to tell you where the items are now. Auction houses do not divulge buyers. This is understandable from their business perspective. I certainly have no idea where the few pieces that I and the boards to which I reported sold at auction years ago ended up. We might as well have tossed them on a bonfire. This is a total abrogation of museological duty.
What is the answer to this sort of deaccessioning destruction? How can it be avoided in an ethical manner? First: recognize this practice for what it is and acknowledge that it contradicts a museum’s commitment to preserving and its ethic of caring for its collections. Second: rectify the practice. Third: hold participants accountable when their actions of deaccession violate mandates of caring for their collections.
Correcting the unfortunate results of unbridled commercial deaccessioning is simple. An item can be deaccessioned and kept by the museum for educational purposes. Or it can be sold or given to another museum. Everyone wins in this situation: The museum removing the item no longer has the expense of caring for it. The museum taking the object has expanded its holdings while agreeing to assure the item’s future, or to transfer it again to another museum with the same donation restrictions. The public will still have access to it. And the object itself will survive, complete with its provenance.
The only absent players in this scenario are dealers of art and antiques, but they will be fine. Selling museum collections is a tiny part of their work. It should be noted that they are blameless when it comes to museum sales. They are simply doing their job for their financial benefit and for that of a client.
Inter-museum transfer of “unwanted” collections will be of immense importance ethically and practically to the museum field at large. It aligns with the preservation duty museums embrace, and it will end the obvious hypocrisy of voicing concern for the survival of collections, only to sell items into oblivion. Technological advances can easily facilitate a digital marketplace for museum–museum sales. One museum’s loss can always be another’s gain.
Inter-museum transfer need not rule out profit. A museum deaccession could happen commercially by sale only to other museums. This was done with a piece of sculpture years ago when I directed the Bennington Museum. A distinguished private dealer engineered the work’s sale to a museum.
When I started my museum career, as a fledgling curator at the Museum of the City of New York in 1971, I never had a donor express concern that the museum would consider removing anything from its permanent collections. Now that deaccessioning is a common practice, the subject comes up often when discussing acquisitions and encouraging donors. I am always able to explain the relative rarity of the action, but I wonder what sort of donations museums are not offered because of deaccessioning fears. And of course, the vast majority of what you see in museums has been gifted.
Recently, I have tried to practice this type of ethical deaccessioning. In 2014, Boscobel House and Gardens in Garrison, New York, gave a mid-1850s painting of West Point to the West Point Museum, directly across the Hudson. Boscobel is a relocated, reconstructed, and conjecturally furnished Federal-period historic house museum from around 1810. The painting had absolutely no relevance whatsoever to the organization. The piece was officially deaccessioned by the Boscobel board of trustees at the recommendation of the board chair (Barnabas McHenry) and the executive director (me). These players hardly represented a big, famous institution. The painting is not by some high-profile renowned artist. Its commercial value is minimal. The West Point Museum at the United States Military Academy was delighted to receive it.
Large or small, notable or unknown, well-heeled or fiscally lean, just about every museum of any size, location, content, and governance structure could establish a policy to deaccession items only to other museums. Such a policy would accrue to the betterment of a collection object, the institution removing it, the receiving organization, the museum field, and those the field serves in general. It would be simple to accomplish by those who are responsible for the legacies held in trust for past, present, and future generations. It is also the ethical thing to do.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 4, on page 32
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