Museums and the Disposal Debate: A Collection of Essays, edited by Peter Davies, is a fascinating collection of international case studies trying to answer the age old question: How to know what to keep and what to dispose. While the book is collated in academia format, please do not let that discourage you from reading the valuable real-life examples.
For clarity, Peter defines the difference as:
Deaccessioning occurs when an object that has been accessioned into the museum collection, is being considered for disposal and so would need to be deaccessioned, which is the documented removal of an object recorded on the accessions register.
Disposal is the physical removal of an object from a collection – there are several methods of disposal available to museums including transfer, repatriation, destruction or disposal through sales (Grant, A., 1997: Glossary:3)
This subtle but powerful language clarification made such a difference, depending on the case study. However, in some cases, the lines of clarity seemed to be blurred ever so slightly. Whether this was a language issue (for the international papers) or just lack of being able to truly define the situation as black and white is unknown.
Museums have a responsibility via the Collections Policy to set out what will happen to their collection should it no longer be required (this includes explaining the reasons for deaccession/disposal and clarification of any legal ramifications.). But how they go about disposal is another matter.
The book lays out ethical and moral situation that many museums have met or will meet such as:
- What to do when you run out of room?
- How to handle donations?
- How much say should the public have with museums deaccsision/disposal?
- Does digitising replace the need for storage?
- Is storage a design issue?
- Should items be sold? If yes, how should the profits be dealt with?
- Who should determine what should stay or leave? Do different curators been different decisions?
- What items should be displayed?
I found myself on a bit of an emotional roller coaster as I read each chapter as the individual authors put forth a case either pro or against deacessioning and disposal. Although I read the book front to back as a novel, it is not required and indeed is formatting as such so you can dip in and out as required.
Each chapter brings professional, but personal issues to light to each of the following papers:
Disposing Material: Information Lost or New Perspectives Gained? Mildred Hoie Plantation Museum, Georgia USA
Deaccessioning in Practice: How to Make Sure We Get It Right. Phillip Mould Fine Paintings Ltd, London
Just Say No: You Cannot be Too Careful in Embracing Disposal. Institute of Ideas, London.
Deaccession and Disposal: The Theory in Context. East Grinstead Museum and Crawley Museum, UK
Disposal as an Essential Collections Management Tool: The Legal, Ethical and Practical Case for Deaccessioning in the United States. University of Leicester
Museums, Human Remains and Disposal. Manchester Museum, University of Manchester
Disposals in Built Heritage: Destruction or Rational Action? JJvdskyla University Museum, Finland
No Longer The Devil’s Handiwork: Deaccessioning at Glebow. Glenbow Museum, Canada
Too Much of a Good ThingL Lessons from Deaccessioning at National Trust Historic Sites. National Trust for Historic Preservation, USA
Deaccession and Disposal: Practice and Potential at East Grinstead Museum. East Grinstead Museum and Crawley Museum, UK.
Policy and Practice
The Politics of Trust: The Managerial Implications of Breaking Donor Stipulations. Smithsonian Institution & The American University, Washington DC
The Practical and Legal Implications of Efforts to Keep Deaccessioned Objects in the Public domain. Parese & Sabin, LLP, Williamstown, USA
Why the AAM Should Look to the Revised Disposal Policy of the Museums Association for Guidance. Carlyle House Historic Park, Virginia USA
The Valuation and Evaluation of Collections in Germany. University of Frankfurt, Germany.
The Application of Deaccessioning Policies in the UK Museums. University of St Andrews
Subtracting Collections: Practice Makes Perfect (Usually). Seton Hall University, New Jersey USA
Strategic Collections Management. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-on-Avon.
Deaccessioning in Perspective. Centraal Museum, Utrecht, Netherlands.
Disposals Protected by Values: Museums as Owners of the Process. Art Historian and Conservator, Helsinki, Finland.
Significance Criteria A Potentially Strong Tool to Assess History Collection Accessions and Deaccessions. Northeast Museum Services Center, National Parks Service, Charlestown, USA
From Aircraft to Stamps: The Imperial War Museum Collections Reviews. Imperial War Museum, London
On the Road to Nowhere and other Collections Development Debacles. Canadian Agriculture Museum, Ottawa.
If you work in a cultural environment, or even a student in Museum studies, this stimulating collection of current examples is something you need to read.