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Small Museum Deaccessioning: Defending your Decision

The final thing which needs to be covered before small museums deaccession is the possibility for a person or group of people to take issue with a museum’s actions. Small museums need to be particularly aware of this because of how they can be viewed by their communities. They can be seen as a storage site for all historic things related to the community rather than an organization that defines what is worthy of being held in the public trust. Even if the museum deaccessions with the best intentions people may be upset.

My number one recommendation is that museums avoid the temptation to deaccession on the sly. It can be alluring to quietly remove items from collections to limit the potential for public outcry. Deaccessioning this way will make museums look shady; transparency is the best policy. Being under the eagle eye of your community is part of serving them. By accessioning an item, the museum has made a commitment to its community the item will be saved for future generations as part of the public trust. The public deserves to know why the museum feels it should not or cannot keep this promise. By telling the public about deaccessioning, the museum is putting out the message that nothing is wrong and nothing is being covered up. Ways to put out this initial notification include a notice on the museum’s webpage or social media. Announcing the action publicly before it happens can help avoid the hubbub. Staff can take the chance to explain what is happening and why before minds run wild.

Besides trying to get out front of public opinion, museums need to have a plan to handle pushback. In “Collections Management”, Steven Miller details a solid strategy: the best way forward is to have one qualified representative. This person should publish “a single and simple justification” that is “truthful, complete, and promptly delivered.” If the museum announced the action beforehand, then they can follow up on the initial message. Avoid the temptation to panic. A sloppy response is going to paint the museum in a bad light. What the public may assume from a poorly constructed response is that the decisions to deaccession were also poorly constructed. Stand firm in your decisions and be prepared to justify them.

Staff should also be ready to deliver documentation. Being able to provide your policies with proof you followed them will help place the museum in the clear. People can disagree with the deaccession. They cannot argue you acted unethically.

Despite the potential for controversy and museums needing to be prepared for it, this should not dissuade a small museum from deaccessioning. Most often, especially if it is handled correctly, no one is going to blink an eye at a museum deaccessioning.

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