This thesis has taught me a lot, how to deal with patience, stress, and a lot of homework. But the topic of deaccessioning is important to me because of my interest in collections and communication. I went into the topic of deaccessioning thinking that I would be against the practice altogether because it seemed that museums had no regard for public trust and were selling paintings only for the cash benefit.
With further research I understood that deaccessioning is an important part of collections management. Museums cannot hold objects forever and missions and goals change and the collection needs to reflect this. Deaccessioning can seem problematic for the museum community because policy is difficult to follow, especially with regards to the use of funds from selling for “care of the collection.” Unfortunately, the phrase “care of the collection” is not clearly defined by professional organizations and it is up to the individual museum to define it (so there are many different interpretations of this concept). This creates confusion and disagreement within and outside of the museum profession.
Another major finding relates to museums that have created public furor within their community through poor deaccessioning decisions. These bad examples cast museums that legitimately need to use deaccessioning to cull their collections in a bad light. The media’s portrayal of these cases needs to change as they can misinform or bias the public against all deaccessions. Museums should play an active roll in informing the press and the public, so that responses are not reactionary. For example, museums should establish dialogue with their community and the media about why deaccessioning is necessary, their internal policies, and their decision-making. This will help create more informed and constructive communications around deaccessioning.
Research was challenging because negative examples of deaccessioning have become more and more public, while successful examples are more difficult to find. Case studies and collections policies became the main resources that I relied upon. This research also revealed that art museums seem to be the focus of much of the media attention given the high dollar amounts in question and the drama involved. But deaccessioning is an important tool for historical societies and natural history museums as well.
Explaining that deaccessioning is very useful and even advantageous, and not taboo is extremely important to the museum field and public, given the mission and public obligations of most museums. Museum professionals need to develop a cohesive agreement on deaccessioning policy and guidelines and the public needs to be better educated that it is an important process in collections management. Museums need to be proactive and create dialogue explaining why deaccessioning is important and how ethical and effective deaccessioning should be implemented.
For more information on deaccessioning policies please visit AAM’s website.