There is no deaccessioning controversy

Posted on January 13, 2009 under museums

There has recently been much talk, particularly in the art world, about deaccessioning.*  This has been occasioned by a rash of attempts to sell off collections for cash in a down economy, especially in university museums and, most recently, at the National Academy Museum.  In December, the NAM sold 2 paintings for $15 mil to support their operations and was promptly blackballed by the Association of Art Museum Directors:  other museums are forbidden to lend to them.  To some in the art world, this reaction seemed prudish and outmoded (but thankfully there are some great defenders of deaccessioning ethics), and a number of newspaper articles and so on have been written about this deaccessioning “controversy.”

There is no controversy.  Selling off collections items for operating expenses is a violation of our core values.

Museums are, at our core, stewards.  We hold collections in trust for the public.  As Graham Beal of the Detroit Institute of Arts said recently, “The institution is there to safeguard the art. The art is not there to support the institution.”  Our artifacts are not assets.  In the US, museums are nonprofit organizations, not only because it’s a useful tax status (which also confers certain stewardship responsibilities), but because we are charities in the deepest sense of the word.  We care for artifacts and are not only the stewards of our collections, but of a deep collective memory.  We care for the public, too, by providing community space to consider, build and deepen the meaning of our collective experiences.  We care for people by caring for things.

Museum ethics have been codified by the AAM, AAMD, AASLH and others to reflect this sacred trust the public has placed in us museums, to care for the material and natural culture of the past, present, and future.  We do not, and should not, take this trust lightly.


*Don’t get me started about how in this discourse “museum”=”art museum” and “collections”=”art.”

13 Comments on “There is no deaccessioning controversy”

  1. “Don’t get me started about how in this discourse “museum”=”art museum” and “collections”=”art.””

    I know! That’s been driving me crazy! (Perhaps you could do a separate post on that?)

  2. I feel a bit like a broken record about it (“As you know, Bob, more than half of US museums are small history museums”) but it’s certainly worth talking about.

  3. I was wondering if you any sense of why people immediately think “art” when they hear museum and not “history” or “science” (the most popular museum in my hometown was/is a science discovery museum).

    More on topic for the post, I know part of the issue that my institution may face in the future is that objects which were accepted under the assumption they had to do with the house have turned out to be reproductions or unrelated. We just don’t have the space or mission to store them, and our budget is tight…

  4. Yes, there are certainly good reasons to deaccession items: if they’re duplicates, out of scope, if the museum can’t take care of them/danger to the object or staff (like the nuclear fuel rods we used to have). And that’s fine, if the money from the sales or whatever are used for collections care. What’s at issue here is selling off collections for operating monies.

  5. “Don’t get me started about how in this discourse “museum”=”art museum” and “collections”=”art.””

    Oh please, I’d love to get you started on that topic. It has often been the assumption when I tell people what I do (the fact that I’m in a Library and Information Science program then sets and and causes even more confusion and lots of blank looks).

    I think in general it is a reflection that both art and science museums are often the biggest, most well funded and most highlighted institutions. While by numbers, history museums are far more numerous, the big ones (both in terms of money & staffing) are not history-oriented

    But that’s my gut sense – I haven’t done a careful comparison of the numbers.

  6. I’m going to take a contrary view — I support what NAM did. Yes, there is the danger of that slippery slope discussed in the NYT article. But when your choice is effectively reducing public service or shutting down or culling a collection of some items that may help solve the problem at hand, what choice is there?

    Now I’m not going to suggest that any collection is a bottomless pit of assets to be sold off at whim. But when you consider that most collections have an incredible number of items that rarely see the light of day, I would prefer to foster opportunities to get those items on display than squirrel away yet more items that no one will ever get to see. I would also prefer to utilize assets in a way that maintains or enables an institution to add staff rather than sit on invisible assets that require the layoff of staff in order to protect the integrity of a collection.

    The public good requires that we ensure that collections intended for the public remain public. It also requires that we are able to present these collections to the public in a responsible manner, properly housing and displaying them, providing security and the care of dedicated professionals.

    NAM acted in good faith and above board — those associations failed a member institution and then further punished that institution in an unjust and inappropriate manner.

  7. The National Academy Museum did not sell any paintings at all. The paintings sold were given, in 1865, to the National Academy of Design, it was the Artist members who voted 181 to 1, with a sad heart, but by necessity to sell the paintings. A family might sell an heirloom rather than be homeless. Art is a living entity, the paintings were not destroyed, but found a new home with someone else to take care of them.

  8. Of course there is a controversy here — people disagree on this issue, and that’s enough to make it a controversy. Now you may think that one side in this controversy is clearly correct, and it is your right to so think. But it’s factually inaccurate to claim that no controversy exists.

    Your argument, stripped of the high-sounding rhetoric, seems to be that museums exist to preserve their collections for the benefit of the public. Presumably this means that the public will actually get to view them at some point — you’re not just talking about preserving work in some hermetically-sealed vault somewhere.

    As an aside, I know there are some works that cannot be viewed at all, and which are of such historical value that preservation alone is the goal. The cave paintings in France are in this category. But most work should be preserved and viewed, not just preserved.

    We agree that is the goal. Now, if the museum acquiring the work will preserve it properly and show it to the public how exactly is this goal undermined? In fact, many big museums have HUGE collections, most of which never get seen by the public.

    So if the acquiring museum will a) take care of the work, and b) SHOW it, doesn’t that further the goal of stewardship you seem to support?

    I can see an argument against selling a work to a private collector, no matter how well he’d take care of it. I can also see an argument against selling it to an institution without the expertise or resources to properly care for the work.

    In many cases, the sale will make it more likely that people will actually see the work. Shouldn’t that be the goal?

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