The conversation

Michael Terwey, Jenny Durrant, Issue 117/10, p17, 02.10.2017

How can museums involve the public in decisions about disposals from collections?

Dear Michael: While many museums focus their activities around public participation, the process of curatorial disposal is hidden behind closed doors. As a profession, we’ve become more accepting that disposal needs to happen for a wide variety of reasons, and it is a focus of many training sessions and conferences. Disposal could become a type of public co-curation, but we seem reluctant to talk about it with our stakeholders or publics, let alone involve them in the process. Perhaps the first step to involving the public is to understand why we are so reluctant to do so.

Best wishes, Jenny

Dear Jenny: The root of the reluctance is a combination of embarrassment and anxiety. Embarrassment because, on one level, disposal is an implicit admission of institutional failure: to collect sustainably, to exercise rigorous curatorial judgment or to care properly for collections. And anxiety, because involving the public in decisions on disposal highlights the gap in understanding between how museum professionals see collections – as resources to be used – and how the public often do, as “treasures” to be valued for their status. So it’s an important, if uncomfortable, discussion for us to have.

Best wishes, Michael

Dear Michael: Absolutely, and perhaps it’s time to admit that museum staff are human and can make mistakes. It’s also important to work out why we want to involve the public in disposals. Is it because we think we should? Or could we engage in active conversation, even develop shared decision-making? A significant barrier to overcome is the feeling that public involvement threatens the authority and expertise of museum professionals; we don’t involve the public in acquisitions, so why should we involve them in disposals? My research into professional attitudes is examining these issues.

Best wishes, Jenny


Dear Jenny: There’s no point in working with the public unless it will contribute to decision-making, but in practice, this is challenging. Disposal is enmeshed with decisions about so many other aspects of museum operation and strategy that treating it as a separate set of judgments would be poor decision-making. And how do you enable the public to contribute to and share responsibility for decisions where there are likely to be financial and reputational consequences? You might, by accident, create a parallel set of management structures to your own system of governance which, ultimately, has legal responsibility for a museum’s actions. More research is essential to unpicking some of these issues. Perhaps we need more experimentation in forms of collaboration.

Best wishes, Michael

Dear Michael: Governance and legal issues are essential considerations, and to become fully transparent, the disposal process must embrace these. But many of the issues are rooted in risk management – risk of reputational damage, legal recourse, causing offence or losing research potential. Some museums deal with these better than others, and we need to share good and bad lessons from a broad spectrum of museums. We must also encourage the public and stakeholders to understand the significance of objects beyond their financial value – money is often the first thing they think about with disposals, but it needs to become the last.

Best wishes, Jenny


Dear Jenny: There’s always a financial dimension to disposals, as collections cost money to maintain. This is not an issue that we can continue to kick down the road. I worry that in trying to find the right way to do disposals, we defer grasping the nettle and actually doing it. More sharing of practice is helpful, but creating sustainable and used collections needs courage, not just transparency and care.

Best wishes, Michael


Michael Terwey is the head of collections and exhibitions at the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford

Jenny Durrant is a PhD researcher, museum studies, at the 
University of Leicester 


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