The MA's at your disposal - Museums Association

The MA’s at your disposal

Draft due diligence guidelines on disposal by sale published
This autumn will mark five years since members of the Museums Association (MA) voted to reword the code of ethics, allowing museums, in “exceptional circumstances”, to sell non-core items from their collections.

Disposal was, and remains, a sensitive issue, but the deluge of sales that some feared would follow has failed to materialise, with just a 2% rise in disposal since then.

The MA’s ethics committee has, however, dealt with a steady trickle of enquiries about sales from collections – and expects the rate to pick up as collections management practices change and finances tighten.

The Watts Gallery went first, selling two paintings at auction in 2008. The committee has since dealt with cases from the Royal Cornwall Museum, Bolton Council, Gloucester City Council and the RAF Museum, as well as offering confidential advice to several other institutions.

Learning from these cases, the MA realised there was a need for greater guidance specifically relating to sales from collections. The wording of the updated code of ethics and the disposal toolkit, published in 2008, was intentionally vague to allow for case-by-case flexibility. However, some commentators, such as law firm Farrer & Co, were critical of the lack of detail both documents contained in relation to sales. 

This weakness created problems for museums. During the enquiry process, some found that they were unclear on what information to provide and how to comply with the rules of other governing bodies, leading to hold-ups in what was already a long procedure. 

Time for a rethink

With these issues in mind, the MA recently collaborated with the Accreditation team at Arts Council England (ACE) to produce a detailed set of due diligence guidelines relating specifically to disposal by sale.

The draft guidelines were drawn up by Janet Ulph, professor of commercial law at Leicester University, during her tenure as visiting Arts & Humanities Research Council fellow at the MA.

At the draft document’s heart is public interest and an emphasis on the cultural value of objects, says Ulph. As well as offering practical, stage-by-stage advice, the guidelines take a long-term view, creating an ethical framework whereby applicants weigh up the public benefit of gaining income against how an object might be valued and reinterpreted in future.

They continue to stipulate that any item should be offered to another museum free of charge first and should be sold only if no takers come forward.

Like the code of ethics, Ulph’s guidelines make a distinction between curatorially motivated and financially motivated sales – selling to other museums for curatorial reasons as opposed to selling at private auction to the highest bidder to raise cash. The guidelines create additional requirements for financially motivated disposal.

This issue is timely because of a growing number of ambiguous cases that could be classified as a hybrid of the two.

With collections reviews becoming increasingly widespread, some museums conducting reviews for curatorial reasons have come across items that turned out to be more valuable than they thought and, instead of offering them to other museums, have chosen to sell them on to benefit the rest of the collection.

This has generally occurred with mass-produced, duplicate objects already well-represented in the public domain.

In some situations, the museums involved were invited to consult the sector by publicly advertising their intentions on the MA’s Find an Object website before making a final decision.

The MA’s head of policy, Maurice Davies, said other “hybrid” applications would need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. “Regardless of motivation, outcome is what’s important,” he says.

But a rise in disposal for financial reasons could have unintended consequences. If the trend continues, there are concerns that auditors could start demanding that collections appear on an organisation’s balance sheet as financial assets.

This request has been contested by the museum sector on several occasions – most recently last year – and could have potentially serious implications, creating the added expense of valuing collections, as well as scaring off potential donors who fear their objects could end up on the open market.  

Any disposal has the potential to damage public trust in institutions. In June, Manchester Library was accused of “cultural vandalism” amid a public outcry over the disposal of books and periodicals from its archives.

The MA ethics committee and ACE hope the new guidelines will help museums to avoid such actions.

The due diligence guidelines are open for consultation on the MA website until 30 July.

Disposal timeline


MA members vote to change  code of ethics  to allow financially motivated disposal in exceptional circumstances


MA publishes disposal toolkit. The Watts Gallery becomes the first to take advantage of the code, raising £1.5m for its core collection from the sale of two paintings


Find an Object database launched on the MA website, enabling museums to advertise objects for disposal more easily


Law firm Farrer & Co publishes an article criticising the MA’s code of ethics clause on financially motivated disposal as overly vague


An MA survey finds that attitudes have changed, with 91% of museums now wishing to dispose of items from their collections, compared with 76% in 2007

MA launches due diligence consultation to create more detailed guidelines on the process of disposal by sale

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