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First Step to Small Museum Deaccessioning

Previously, we discussed why small museums should deaccession. Now, we are going to dedicate a few posts to how small museums should deaccession. The literature on the subject is written primarily for large institutions. The circumstances of small museums mean deaccessioning will look different for them.

First things first, before a museum can ethically deaccession, there needs to be a collections policy in place. If your organization is one of the 79 percent of small museums that do not have one, you need to start there. A collections policy will help you have knowledge of and control over the items it holds in the public trust. As Patricia Miller describes, each museum should “know what you have, know why have it, know where you got it, know where it is.”

A collections policy is the museum’s guide for collection decisions. It is where a museum articulates its mission in terms of the collection. What the museum collects and why is laid out along with standards of care. Included is the purpose of the museum, an explanation of the scope of the collection, an approach to acquisition, loan policies, requirements for record-keeping, and deaccessioning policy. Establishing this level of control is the ethical basis for any deaccessioning action. Since deaccessioning is supposed to be based on collection needs and missions, defining what those have to be the first step.

An example of why policy comes first is an organ at the Dr. Pound Historical Farmstead in Dripping Springs, Texas. Living permanently in a storage room, the organ predates all staff members. It has no connection to Dr. Pound but also has no accompanying paperwork. Author Julia Clark explained, “Staff would like to find this organ a better home, but it is difficult to remove something from your collection when you are not even sure that you own it.” Similar reasoning would follow if the Farmstead tried to remove the pump organ because, since it is not related to Dr. Pound, it falls outside the scope of their collection. Without a collections policy to define what that scope is, the pump organ has to stay. This situation exemplifies why the policy is the first step.

Creating a collections policy does not need to be an overwhelming task. Museums can reach other organizations of a similar size and mission to see what their policy look like. The American Alliance of Museums has example policies that can be adapted to fit your organization. Once the base policy is in place, you can start writing a deaccessioning policy. Our next post will cover how to do that.

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