Buxton Museum and Art Gallery
Deaccessioning of material from the Derbyshire and Derby School Library Service
The Derbyshire and Derby Schools Library Service (SLS) contained art and craft work from around the world, collected over a period of 50 years in the mid-20th century. When the service closed in 2018, Buxton Museum decided to take a thoughtful approach to its disposal and identify communities, museums, galleries and audiences to which material could be transferred.
The museum recognised the need to undertake deeper research, particularly into the provenance of the world cultures items. Some of these were already old when the SLS purchased them from antique dealers and high-end shops, while contemporary pieces had been purchased by staff travelling abroad. Buxton Museum successfully obtained funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund to undertake this important work.
A detailed audit of the material was completed with assistance from sector specialists such as the Museum Ethnographers Group. With this information, decisions were made as to which material might be kept, what would be transferred or disposed of, and how this would be approached.
The museum sent targeted emails to other museums that had existing similar collections and expertise. For example, Bristol Museums received the Pacific material because of their active research programme and existing plans for restitution/repatriation of material.
It was harder to find specialist advice about the Native American and First Nations material, but experts at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC helped identify the items and which tribal groups the material came from.
Having had limited responses from UK museums for this material, Buxton’s curators decided to try to return items to their communities. The Smithsonian provided contact information and guidance on approaching tribal elders and institutions that cared for their specific heritage. So far, the team has contacted five tribes and received an overwhelmingly positive response.
Project Officer Bret Gaunt says: “Although we are a small museum, we have gained invaluable and specialist knowledge moving the project forward, developing our own confidence to communicate and build relationships with both big national museums and small communities abroad.
“These communities told us they have previously felt marginalised and ignored when making requests to have their heritage returned to them. They deeply appreciated that we too valued their ambition to return ‘cultural treasures’ to their communities.”