Magazine article New Criterion

The Ethics of Deaccessioning

Magazine article New Criterion

The Ethics of Deaccessioning

Article excerpt

With more than forty-five years in the museum field as a curator, director, consultant, museum studies educator, writer, and trustee, I have noticed that, in spite of a professed concern for the preservation of their collections, and in spite of the shock expressed when collections are lost to disastrous human or natural actions, museums are more than willing to engage in purposeful destruction of their collections.

Museums consciously trash things expected to be held in perpetuity for the public good by deaccessioning items without requiring preservation caveats of the next owner. This largely happens when museums sell items on the open market. To be sure, the vast majority of museum collections are secure for the moment. But as more and more institutions are overwhelmed by their expanding collections, and the cost of maintaining those collections, museum holdings will contract.

I have been fortunate enough that collection loss by outside forces in the museums where I have been a curator or director has not occurred (with the exception of a very large ship model on loan to another museum years ago). Yet I have caused depletion by my own overt and approved actions on the job when I have deaccessioned things commercially on the open market without restrictions.

Normally museums devote considerable resources to protecting their art, historic artifacts, and scientific specimens. Tens of thousands are employed in various museum jobs to help assure the retention of collections.

These positions include curators, conservators, directors, collection managers, security, and maintenance staff. Though it appears museums are places for public engagement, enjoyment, education, and even entertainment, they are really safe-deposit boxes writ large and made accessible to the public. The mission of most museums is to acquire and preserve valued evidence of the human and natural universe for the long term. Since forever is hard to assure with any certainty, "in perpetuity" is the accepted phrase applied on the job.

Except for loss of life, the most alarming tragedy that a museum fears is the destruction of its collections. Those in positions of authority recoil at the thought of objects disappearing from these cherished stores of our shared culture. Think of the theft of thirteen pieces of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in 2003, and the ransacking of the Mosul Museum by ISIS in 2015--all events that continue to reverberate today.

With strict security measures on all fronts and at all levels, museums work ceaselessly to guarantee the safe handling, retention, and exhibition of their collections. This devotion applies when items are in storage, in galleries, on loan, or in transit. Only employees trained to touch collections are allowed to do so. They will use certain kinds of gloves along with containers, wrappings, and equipment designed to come in contact with objects in a secure way. The spaces within which items are contained will be controlled to minimize pollution, light, or physical and chemical atmospheric harm.

When not being physically handled, museum collections are under the watchful observance of dedicated security systems and assigned personnel. Objects are protected by a host of safety measures, both technological and physical. When an item is on display, the first line of defense is the ubiquitous "Please do not touch" sign. These are, of course, simple reminders for well-behaved visitors. Augmenting written warnings are locked display cases, unbreakable glazed barriers, low and indirect lighting for light-sensitive items, alarms, stanchions, climate-control systems, and guards. Rooms and buildings that contain collections are basically vaults fitted out with locks, sprinkler systems, optical and sound security equipment, and devices to reduce theft and natural trauma. Updates based on new security information lead to regular improvements and museums spend serious dollars ensuring their systems are state-of-the-art. …

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