The ethics of disposal
We lead thinking on the management and disposal of museum collections.
We believe that museums need to ensure their collections are well managed, actively used and sustainable.
Our ethical advice on disposal encourages museums to take a more active approach to appropriate disposal, whilst ensuring safeguards are in place to protect collections and public trust in museums.
Although disposing of items is not without risk, there can be significant benefits if the process is well managed.
Better care and curation for an item or improving public access and use are just some of them.
A strong framework to support responsible disposal exists within the UK based on the MA Code of Ethics for Museums, practical advice in the Disposal Toolkit, and individual advice from our Ethics Committee. The Code of Ethics is also embedded within the UK Accreditation Standard and is supported by the UK Accreditation partners: Arts Council England, Welsh Government, Museums Galleries Scotland and Northern Ireland Museums Council.
Considering disposal by sale including financially motivated disposal
If your museum is considering disposing of an item by sale, you should first look at our Disposal Toolkit and additional guidelines on financially motivated disposal to help you through the decision making, procedures and processes necessary to sell collections ethically and in line with UK sector standards.
Museums considering a disposal by sale 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.
Our Disposal Toolkit is developed in conjunction with Arts Council England, the Welsh Government, Museums Galleries Scotland and Northern Ireland Museums Council.
If your museum is Accredited and you advance with your plans for sale, you must also contact your Accreditation Assessing Organisation to ensure your proposal complies with the Accreditation standard and procedures. If a sale is an incidental final outcome of a curatorially motivated disposal process then this is generally uncontroversial, especially if the item has been previously offered free of charge to other museums and the Disposal Toolkit has been closely followed.
If you are planning on selling items from accessioned collections, you should follow these steps:
- Read the advice set out in the Disposal Toolkit and the Financially Motivated Disposal Toolkit and consider whether your proposed sale can meet the key criteria for ethical sale.
- For ethical advice, get in touch with the MA for an informal initial discussion about your plans. You may also want to discuss your plans with your Accreditation assessing organisation at this stage if you are an Accredited museum.
- If you choose to advance your plans for selling items from your museum collection, you should complete and send the first contact form to the MA and your Accreditation Assessing Organisation. The form provides information to the MA and your Accreditation Assessing Organisation to determine whether the proposed disposal is curatorially or financially motivated. The Ethics Committee will respond to your proposal and consider how this complies with the requirements of the Code of Ethics. This can take several months as the committee meets quarterly. Your Accreditation Assessing Organisation will decide on motivation which will determine next steps and advise if there is any impact on your Accreditation status due to your proposed sale.
- Once you have acted on initial advice from the Ethics Committee, you may be expected to submit a compliance report as outlined in the Disposal Toolkit. This will allow the Ethics Committee to consider whether the sale meets the requirements of the Code of Ethics. You should also submit a copy of the compliance report to your Accreditation Assessing Organisation if you are from an Accredited museum.
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.
We recognise that there are operators offering to help museums dispose of deaccessioned collections items by sale. We do not endorse any specific private organisation that enables sales of deaccessioned items, but note that sale can – in limited circumstances and provided that the full disposal toolkit process is followed – be consistent with the current guidance on ethical disposal.
Page 20 of the Disposals Toolkit sets out requirements on methods of sale in detail. 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
- Code of Ethics for Museums (pdf)
- Code of Ethics: addition guidance (word)
- Disposal Toolkit (pdf)
- Additional guidance on financially motivated disposal (pdf)
- First contact form (word)
- Compliance report (word)
- Guidelines on curatorially motivated disposal (pdf)
- Find an Object
- Museums facing closure: legal and ethical issues (pdf)
- Joint statement: unethical sale from museum collections (pdf)
- Ethics Committee statement on methods of sale of deaccessioned collection items
Examples of the formal advice that the Museums Association has given to museums about proposals for financially motivated disposal can be found here:
- Bolton Council (word)
- Royal Cornwall Museum (word)
- Southampton City Council (word)
- Northampton Borough Council (word)
Note that if sale is an incidental final outcome of a curatorially motivated disposal process then this is generally uncontroversial, especially if the item has been previously offered free of charge to other museums and the disposal toolkit has been closely followed.
Get in touch
If you are unsure about a proposed disposal we urge you to contact us for confidential advice at an early stage, especially in difficult areas where practice is evolving, such as proposed sale of collections.