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Why Small Museums Should Deaccession

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

Small museums and their collections are a world unto themselves. Authors Jackie Hoff and Nicolette Meister articulated the problem in “The Small Museum Toolkit.” They wrote: “Collections in museums across the country have grown without purpose, limited resources (human and financial) are being used to maintain collections irrelevant to the institutional mission, and museums lack a vision for the future of the collection.”

Such a statement brings up an obvious question: can’t small museums get rid of some of it? Yes. And deaccessioning is the answer. While the practice was once a contested subject, it is now common practice among the world’s leading museums. Due to their limited resources, small museums will benefit from following suit. Deaccessioning is a way for small museums to be increasingly mission-based, strive for a professional standard, and increase the level of object care.

Every item in a museum collection should directly contribute to the goals of the organization. Talk to the staff at small museums and they are likely to have objects which cause them to question the sanity of their predecessor. By deaccessioning, museums allow themselves to ensure collections fall within their mission. If you are a board game museum with a stuffed bison head, deaccessioning provides an opportunity to make room for objects that more closely align with the mission of your museum The focus can solely be on what you hope to achieve through board games. Getting rid of irrelevant items allows an organization to focus on what they hope to achieve rather than what they have.

Reducing collections is also a way for small museums to meet the standards of professional organizations. In the early 2000s, an AAM report showed 25 percent of all accreditation applications “were tabled” because of “inadequacies in collection stewardship.” Many organizations had collections too large for them to adequality care for. Other collections showed a lack of planning. Deaccessioning is a way to partially solve these problems. By getting a collection in check, the small museums are aligning themselves with field standards.

One of the biggest issues collections staff encounter when caring for their collection is budget. Collections consume resources! The larger a collection is, the more money it requires. When budgets are thin it makes sense to thin the collection. Tough decisions may need to occur concerning what is kept, but ultimately, the museum is best serving its public by deaccessioning.

Museums, especially small ones, cannot care for everything offered to them; limiting the collection saves money: fewer rooms would need to be cooled to collection temperatures and budgets for storage materials can be reduced or better utilized. These planned and calculated measures can help staff achieve more with their time by dealing with less. By limiting the number of items they have, small museums can help ensure they have the budget to provide a high quality of care.

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