One Response to the Deaccessioning Dilemma

Several colleagues reached out to me after my post last week on deaccessioning. Two, in particular, offered food-for-thought from which others might gain significant insight (I know I did).

I asked both if they’d allow me to post their commentary here and they both said yes. So herewith, Part 1, from Ruth Taylor, Executive Director at the Newport Historical Society, an email she had shared with colleagues in response to an article from the Boston Globe, The Berkshire Museum Defends its Most Important Asset: Its Open Doors.

I find Ruth to be one of the most cogent, probing thinkers in our field. She challenges my own thinking on a regular basis and encourages me to further hone my understanding of our work and its impact on our communities. It is no surprise to me that her thoughts on deaccessioning decisions and the use of proceeds from it bring clarity to the underlying concerns of the issue.

This article is really useful in a couple of directions. First, because it starts by announcing its perspective — a regular guy on the street confused by elitist museum snobs. I liked that.
Generally, though, it frames the conflict that informs a lot of conversations we are having both inside the field and with our communities. Do museums exist to protect and preserve collections for an unknowable future, or are they here to serve their communities here and now? It is way too easy to just say “both,” but this controversy highlights the fact that sometimes these ideas will create conflict together. Is it the Berkshire Museum’s job to stay open or to safeguard its collections in public hands?
One of my complaints about the recent NEMA recap of its deaccession session at the last conference is that it treats this issue cautiously, which was actually well discussed on the floor, and focused instead on the less controversial question of “How can we prevent museums from feeling like they have to deaccession?”
For me, the far more interesting and useful question (though not entirely different) is, “How do we determine if a deaccession plan is ethical and mission-proper?” Because, in the end, while I am emotionally attached to the collections-centric position in which I was trained, I recognize that when this perspective leads, in ideological purity, to the loss of regional collection and the concentration of art only in the largest, wealthiest urban centers, we have a problem. A problem of accessibility, diversity, and meaning.
So poor Berkshire Museum — their problem is on the cutting edge of all of our problems. And perhaps exacerbated by a master plan that does seem more than a little wasteful and silly (general museums are not all about technology, either).
The question of what the museum is, who it exists to serve, and how the physical collections fit into that mission is one that, anti-intuitively, we all might want to be thinking about, even though it seems like those questions were answered generations ago. The inevitability of change and loss is also worth some meditative moments — especially since I do believe that we are on the edge of a sea change in both individual philanthropy and government/foundation support, even if this current administration is not predictive of the future, generally.
Finally, going back to the “collections” vs. “community” argument. I believe that I could argue that perhaps the Berkshire Museum could do both, but it might require them to compromise on their vision and instead focus on getting to usefulness with the minimum of loss. I am aware that I am making a lightly informed analysis right here, so forgive me for that. But, returning to the NEMA session, one of the things my table really focused on was “How does an institution evaluate these decisions,” and in my opinion, one of the decision paths should focus on whether the grand vision was necessary, or just seemed like fun.

At the heart of this discussion, as I see it, is the fundamental question that has long vexed me, “Wither the institution on behalf of the collection?” I am an accidental museum professional; my training came outside of the traditional museum studies programs. So where Ruth learned a collections-centric standard, I came of age in the education-centric world of Excellence and Equity. (SIDENOTE: That little book changed my life, truly…)

I don’t believe collections and education are mutually exclusive, and I’d venture to guess that few do these days. Collections are the heart of the museum field. They are our single biggest competitive advantage. They are essential to our work. But I also believe strongly that they benefit greatly from the structure that an institution provides.

There are no easy answers here, as many people far wiser than I (including Ruth) have pointed out. My goal at this point is to learn as much as I can, and to share what I’m coming across as widely as I can. That includes here.

What’s your thinking on Ruth’s commentary? What do you think about the “Wither the institution?” dilemma? I’m interested in your thoughts.

A twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit world, Bob Beatty is founder of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction.