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Deaccessioning for Small Museums: What Can We Get Rid Of?

Last week, we talked about the deaccessioning policy for small museums in general. In tandem with that, we need to discuss an important part of it. While writing a deaccessioning policy, a museum defines acceptable reasons for removing something from its collection.

There is no standard list to copy; possibilities include poor conditions, hazardous materials, duplicate objects, the inability of the museum to properly care for the items, potential to add to another area of the collection, and lack of probable future use. The list could go on and on. Small museums need to be careful what reasons they include, as this list will become a guide for some potentially hard decisions. Here are a few things to consider:

Can you properly care for the item?

Any of the Smithsonian institutions are going to be hard-pressed to find an item they are not the most capable of caring for. Medium and larger institutions are going to have more financial resources to find the help they need with particular objects. However, with their limited staff and limited budget, small museums are in a different position. In an article titled A Mediation on Small and Large Museums, Stephen E. Weil even proposes that small institutions forfeit their collections to larger museums who are qualified to care. This would allow them to focus on what they are good at. This opinion is extreme; however, it shows the struggle small museums have. If an item has important historical value and you do not have the ability (financial, knowledge-based or otherwise) to ensure it is available for future generations, you may need to part with it. A home should be found at another museum capable of giving the item proper treatment and care. Making such a decision will be hard, sad, and likely cause some arguments. A deaccessioning policy is where a museum decides if this is a road they would like to allow themselves to take.

Do you have items protected by the Native Graves and reparations Act (NAGPRA)?

Passed on November 16, 1990, NAGPRA only affects institutions that have accepted federal money since that date. So, unless a small museum has taken money from the federal government in any form, the act legally does not apply to them. However, small museums might, or should, feel ethically inclined to look at their collection to see if they have Native American human remains or religious objects, also known as objects of cultural patrimony. Deaccessioning such items to return them to an appropriate group puts a museum in the clear morally and prepares them to accept federal funds if the opportunity arises. Placing NAGPRA as a reason for deaccessioning is what will allow museums to do this.

Does it help you achieve your mission?

Mission-based deaccessioning comes in two-parts. Part one is removing items that are of poor quality or lack of educational value. Some of these items will be easy to spot. Staff will be excited to rid themselves of the responsibility of taking care of items that do not benefit the museum. At first, there may be many of them.

Part two is to make sure all deaccessioning is mission-based. With the political structures of small museums, volunteers or even staff may be tempted to use the lack of bureaucracy to deaccession for personal reasons. Greta, the long-time tour guide, should not be allowed to submit a painting for deaccessioning because she thinks it's ugly. Hilda, the front desk manager, cannot submit a bird figurine for deaccessioning because she hopes it will somehow find its way to her mantel (see the previous post about ethics). Creating an acceptable list of reasons to deaccession is a way to prevent items from leaving the collection, which should stay.

Specific reasons outlined in the deaccessioning policy should always serve as the basis for a deaccessioning action. Take care when creating your list of reasons.

Tune in next week for: So, you’ve agreed to deaccession an item. Now what?

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