Off the Shelf: a toolkit for ethical transfer, reuse and disposal - Museums Association

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Off the Shelf: a toolkit for ethical transfer, reuse and disposal

Launching our new toolkit for the disposal of museum collections

“The climate crisis is one of the biggest challenges that we face as a society and museums across the UK are working with their communities to support action towards net zero. But we also have to do our bit within the museum space to break the cycle of endless accumulation and think more proactively and dynamically about our collections. This means undertaking active disposal and deciding where objects are best held. This toolkit will support museums to work with communities to make the best use of our rich and diverse collections.”

Sharon Heal, director, Museums Association

We believe that museums need to ensure their collections are well managed, actively used and sustainable and that deaccessioning is an everyday and necessary part of collections management.

Our ethical advice on transfer, reuse and disposal encourages museums to take a more active approach to appropriate disposal, while ensuring safeguards are in place to protect collections and public trust in museums.

This toolkit has been developed with a steering group made up of representatives from the MA’s Ethics Committee, ACE, MGS, Welsh Government, NIMC, NMDC, Collections Trust, AIM and the NLHF.

Considering disposal by sale

Sale can be an ethically acceptable means of disposal provided that the full process set out in the Off the Shelf toolkit is followed.

This includes ensuring that any items selected for deaccessioning are subject to a curatorial review; that the items are not selected for disposal due to a financial motivation; and that they are offered to other public organisations before any consideration of sale.

Sale as an outcome of this process is consistent with the current guidance on ethical disposal and is generally uncontroversial.

The Code of Ethics states that museums should:

“Recognise the principle that collections should not normally be regarded as financially negotiable assets and that financially motivated disposal risks damaging public confidence in museums. Refuse to undertake disposal principally for financial reasons, except where it will significantly improve the long-term public benefit derived from the remaining collection. This will include demonstrating that:

  • The item under consideration lies outside the museum’s established core collection as defined in the collections development policy
  • Extensive prior consultation with sector bodies and the public has been undertaken and considered
  • It is not to generate short-term revenue (for example to meet a budget deficit)
  • It is as a last resort after other sources of funding have been thoroughly explored”

Therefore, museums considering a disposal by sale for the purposes of generating income should seek our confidential advice at an early stage in order that we can discuss motivation for sale, and help you understand how your proposal complies with the requirements of the Code of Ethics.

The MA evaluates proposed financially motivated disposals carefully and it is likely to take several months to provide a definitive opinion, particularly as it is usually necessary to hold a meeting of the Ethics Committee to discuss the proposal.

If your museum is Accredited and you advance with your plans for sale for the purposes of generating income, you must also contact your Accreditation Assessing Organisation to ensure your proposal complies with the Accreditation standard and procedures.

Any sales must be carried out in a way that is open and transparent, and any concerns about a specific sale should be raised with the Ethics Committee.

Links and downloads

Contact us

If you have any queries about a proposed disposal, please contact Sarah Briggs via sarah@museumsassociation.org or India Divers via india@museumsassociation.org in the first instance.

Hero image: Science Museum Group staff assessing collections © Science Museum Group

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