On January 31, I joined a DHPSNY webinar about deaccessioning led by Dyani Feige, Director of Preservation Services for the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts during which she said that “Deaccessioning is part of being a good collections steward.” Deaccessioning can be a helpful resource to manage an overwhelming or irrelevant collection if done correctly.
Deaccessioning is the permanent removal of previously accessioned materials from an institution’s collections. Unaccessioned materials, like undocumented items, long-forgotten loans, and “doorstep donations” are all property that because of its undocumented status can strain an institution. New York’s Museum Property Law created a mechanism that allowed museums resolve old loans and ownership of undocumented property like unreturnable loans and undocumented property, meaning property that the museum is not able to determine the lender, donor, owner, or deemed as “found in collections” to make a legal claim for ownership. The law allows institutions to properly deaccession those items. The law also prohibits museums from using the proceeds from deaccessioning for anything other than acquisition, preservation, and care of collections.
There are a number of reasons why an institution might turn to the deaccessioning process. Although the process can differ from institution to institution, it can be a tool when a new collection policy is implemented, or a systematic evaluation conducted to determine what is appropriate for a collection or a re-evaluation of the collection storage space. An institution might make the decision if it is in the process of becoming more professional in their collections stewardship or hiring a collection manager or archivist with an information science background.
When a museum is in a transition or it is clarifying and and consolidating its collections scope, it might choose to deaccession objects its collection.
An institution needs to have a strong policy and guiding framework to follow New York State laws and deaccessioning process best practices. It is important to share the collections policy and interpretation strategy publicly going forward and provide strong reasonings as to why collection items are being deaccessioned. It is also an opportunity to engage with the public and provide education about good collections stewardship and field questions and concerns.
“Deaccessioning can be a positive mechanism for collections stewardship…” Dyani said. “Understanding the proper deaccessioning process and the implementation of transparency is key. Always collecting for the sake of collection when an organization cannot care for these objects, cannot make them accessible, or cannot properly use them for interpretation can do these objects a disservice.”
Institutions can also look to “good neighbor deaccessioning.” Good neighbor deaccessioning is where one institution can look to others to see if any objects would bolster the mission of a cultural organization in a same town, county, or region. Perhaps that neighboring institution has better resources, or a potentially deaccessioned object is more relevant to their interpretation strategy. It could be as simple as items that are part of a set going to another institution. This form of deaccessioning creates good will among any community concerns while also contributing and strengthening another organization’s mission. It’s not always a clear option, but it is a great one to start with when thinking about deaccessioning.
The success of a museum may rely on how it develops relevant content that appeals to visitors, members, and donors. Its collections are the museum’s most valuable resource when shaping mission, creating programs for visitors, and developing earned income opportunities through merchandising and licensing.
However, museums might have accessioned objects that cannot be given proper care, are duplicates, do not fit collecting scopes, or are part of a set owned by another institution. All are practical reasons to look at deaccessioning.
Institutions that choose to deaccession collection items should review their policies, but also have a clear communication plan to maintain public trust and remain transparent by publicly stating what is being deaccessioned, the reasons why, and where the proceeds from the sale are designated.
Deaccessioning can be a helpful resource to manage an overwhelming or irrelevant collection. Having important objects in your collection is great, but the ability to develop content turns a collections into a valuable, relevant resource.
Further Reading / Resources
Society of American Archivists
Regional Archival Associations Consortium (RAAC)
Museum Association of New York Museum Property Law
American Alliance of Museums Code of Ethics
Things Great and Small: Collections Management Policies by John Simmons
Great examples and justifications for decisions
Collections Conundrums: Solving Collections Management Mysteries by Rebecca Buck and Jean Gilmore
Discusses the gray area and hard decisions in collections management