The Deaccessioning Dilemma

Since 2007 when I joined the staff of the American Association for State and Local History, I’ve had a pretty unique vantage point as one who hears from, works with, and even visits institutions nationwide. It’s been awesome, actually, because it gives me insight into what’s working collectively — and what are the major challenges.

Collections, the very heart of our work, have consistently been one of the BIG issues the field has been grappling with. It was no different in the 19th century as American museums first built their collections nor was it in the 1940s when Theodore Low castigated museums for focusing on collections instead of their educational mission.

The collections-related discussions I’ve personally encountered/been engaged in includes:

1. Standards (see the AASLH StEPs program)
2. Care (see the Connecting to Collections online community)
3. What Qualifies as a Collection? (see the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s determination that buildings are part of the collection)
4. Active Collections (see the Active Collections project or buy their book)
5. Deaccessioning (the gist of this post, and something StEPs, the Trust, and Active Collections all address)
Anyone ever encountered collections storage that looks like this?

The Deaccessioning Dilemma of the day surrounds the Berkshire Museum’s decision to deaccession some of its collection for operating funds: a major no-no in the field that has earned them censure from several national organizations.

I am not going to address my feelings on the Berkshire Museum nor get into the debates about the decision. (Google it…there’s a lot out there.)

I want to highlight three items related to deaccessioning that came across the transom within the last couple of weeks. Each offers, I believe, a balanced, nuanced, and thoughtful approach to the issue(s) at hand and lessons the field might learn from them.

This piece from the New England Museum Association is a summation of a Think Tank session at NEMA’s recent conference. My friend and colleague Laura Roberts facilitated the event and while it came up with no hard-and-fast solutions, I like how this piece addressed potential solutions to the deaccessioning dilemma in six ways:

1. Board Training
2. Public Relations
3. “A-Teams”
4. Failure
5. Relaxation of Standards
6. Alternatives to Auction

Nina Simon wrote a blog post that in many ways addressed what I see are some of the core complexities facing collecting institutions, particularly as they relate to the ethical standard that says funds from deaccessioning can only be used for collections in very specific ways. As she often does, Nina cuts to the heart of the matter: the rule may be simplistic, weak, and outdated but the Berkshire’s issue isn’t about the deaccessioning standards, it’s about public trust. 
 
 “There are creative alternatives to traditional museum deaccessioning policies that could solve this problem,” she posits. “Instead of fighting to protect an imperfect and antiquated rule, we could create new rules — rules that put the public trust, not objects, first.” She has proposed a pretty fascinating solution modeled on food banks. Do yourself a favor and read all about it here.

In “Should a Museum Be Allowed to Cash In On Its Art? Yes, But on Two Conditions, ” Adrian Ellis provides another way to consider the deaccessioning dilemma. His solution, dubbed the Ellis Rule, is similar to what Donna Ann Harris proposed for historic houses in her terrific 2007 book New Solutions for House Museums — sell the artifacts/artwork with a “collections easement” in place:

“A museum selling a work should ensure that the institution or individual to which or whom the work is sold commit in some binding form to equal or higher conservational standards and equal or higher public access to the work in question. Subject to that condition being met, the museum should be able to exercise appropriate discretion with respect to how it spends or invests the proceeds of the sale, and specifically, should not be required to use it solely for the acquisition or conservation of art.” (emphasis is Adrian’s)

Issues around deaccessioning aren’t going to go away any time soon. And it’s important to remember that deaccessioning is an acceptable collections management strategy, under certain conditions.

I found that these three pieces provide a dispassionate way to look at the current situation with the Berkshire Museum and its deaccessioning strategy. As one who thrives on meaningful, thoughtful conversation, I believe they are well worth your time to read and digest.

I’m very interested in your thoughts on deaccessioning and/or NEMA, Nina, or Adrian’s material.

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.