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Best Possible Future: Deaccessioning Methods for Small Museum

The final procedural step in our deaccessioning decussation is the process of physically removing the object from the museum’s care. Museums cannot let this be an afterthought. What museums do with deaccessioned items is a hotly debated subject. Removing an item in the wrong way can bring intense scrutiny to the organization. We will talk about how to handle this next week.

A museum’s deaccessioning policy should outline acceptable methods of disposal. What method will be used should be included in the approval process. The main goal is to ensure the best possible future for the object. Options include sale, transfer to another organization, destruction, and transfer to an educational collection.


A controversial but common method of deaccessioning is to sell an item through a public auction or something similar. Scholars debate this method because the items are leaving the public trust. By accepting an item into the collection, the museum had made a promise to protect it for the benefit of the public. The prevailing current opinion is that museums can ethically sell items as long as the sole reason for deaccessioning is not their value and they use the funds to purchase new items for the collection or the ongoing care collections. They may not use the funds for ongoing operational expenses. Items must be sold in a public way. Museums cannot have a garage sale or sell items in the gift shop to deaccession them. Doing so can bring up issues of transparency and capitalization of collections. If a small museum thinks it has an item worth being sold, it should find the funds to seek out legal advice to ensure it is handled correctly. Others may wish to avoid the matter altogether by not listing this as an acceptable disposal method in the deaccessioning policy.


Bar-none the most preferred way for a museum to deaccession is through exchange or donation to another public institution. This method is described as “guilt-free” by museum giant Steven Miller because it allows museums to keep their “reputation as keeps of shared material culture and scientific evidence.” While this is the preferred method for disposals, even Miller acknowledges it can be a difficult path. Donation and exchange require there to be another institution that wants and can care for the item. With the nature of small museum collections, this might be easier said than done. Items have to be of sufficient quality to warrant another museum accepting responsibility. If items are worthy, there is still a lot of time and effort required to make arrangements with the receiving organization; be prepared to spend the time.

Educational Collection

If an item cannot be sold and no other home can be found for it, a museum may wish to put it in a separate educational collection. The benefit here is the museum can still have the item without having the ethical responsibility to preserve it for future generations like items in the main collection are. Educational collections tend to used to teach in a more physical way than is acceptable with accessioned items. They can travel to schools for children to handle. Guests could use them in an interactive. Items that qualify for this treatment still have some educational value but do not meet the museum’s collections standards.


For some items, there is no future. If all other deaccessioning paths are not an option or the item is made of dangerous materials, museums can destroy an item. In doing so, they should ensure it is rendered completely useless and thrown in the trash. Documentation about the item’s destruction should be kept indefinitely.

What to do with deaccessioned items is going to be incredibly situational. Options should be included in a deaccessioning policy but that policy also needs to be open to future additions. The most important thing when deaccessioning is to document, document, document. If an item is sold, keep all essential pieces of correspondence and check receipts. When an item is destroyed, photos should be kept showing what occurred. This is so the museum can prove without a doubt it acted ethically per its policies. What to do when someone doubts that is our subject for next week.


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