21 April 2008

Deaccessioning in the UK

The Museums Association (the ‘MA’), the professional body representing the museum sector in the UK, has recently published ‘The Disposal Toolkit’. In an important policy shift, the Toolkit invites museums to consider, for the first time, disposing of items from their collections in restricted circumstances.

The Toolkit, which was approved almost unanimously by members of the MA in a general meeting held in 2007 (following a 2-year consultation process), revises the MA’s 30-year-old Code of Ethics. The Code heavily discouraged deaccessioning.

It is clear that statutory rules governing the deaccessioning of artefacts from museum collections, for example, the British Museum Act 1963, will not be affected by the Toolkit. However, when it is within a museum’s discretion to dispose of artefacts, the Toolkit is of potential significance.

The Toolkit outlines the situations where a museum might contemplate disposing of an artefact for financial reasons. They include:

  • Where an artefact is a duplicate of another artefact in the collection;
  • When the artefact has never been used and there is no reasonable expectation of it being used in the future;
  • When the museum cannot provide adequate care for the artefact or it is beyond repair;
  • When an artefact could be sold to provide a better example.

The Toolkit however, also imposes important safeguards. Deaccessioning should only be used as a last resort, when other mechanisms such as the transfer of artefacts to other museums have been exhausted. Museums must not deaccession without expert advice and deacessioning must never take place where to do so would not be in the public interest or would damage the reputation of the museum. Furthermore, the funds raised from the sale of artefacts must be earmarked to fund further acquisitions for the museum’s collection. Finally, in order to ensure transparency, the Toolkit recommends public auction as the method of sale.

One of the main arguments against museums deaccessioning is that the tastes of curators change over time at best; and that at worst, curators are liable to make errors of judgment. Museum collections must therefore be preserved intact, or artefacts of significance will simply be lost.

Yet others have argued that it is not economically sustainable nor is it in the public interest (when the collection remains largely unseen) for museum collections to be extended infinitely into the future.

Between these poles, the Toolkit, it is hoped, provides a measured path.  It remains to be seen how the document will affect the practices of museums over the next decade.

Category: Article