The imminent UK launch of an online platform that will enable museums to sell deaccessioned objects to the public has put disposal back in the spotlight.
MuseumDepotShop is a Dutch venture through which cultural institutions can sell artefacts that are no longer part of their core collection. The organisation is due to branch out to the British market later this year and its arrival has prompted much discussion among the museum community.
Earlier this year, the Museums Association’s (MA) Ethics Committee issued a statement clarifying that this method of sale would be consistent with the Code of Ethics, providing that the full disposal toolkit process is followed.
The development of new platforms to facilitate disposal is welcome news to many in the sector. It is estimated that between 10% and 15% of objects in storage in museums don’t belong there and sending them to better homes would free up all-important space and resources.
Although changes to the Code of Ethics and advances in collections rationalisation have made the process more straightforward than it was in the past, disposal hesitancy remains high. It is seen as time consuming and resource heavy, with many put off by the perceived red tape.
Negative media headlines about high-profile unethical disposals, such as Northampton Borough Council’s sale of the Egyptian statue Sekhemka in 2014, have also made museums wary of the reaction from the public and the press.
It still seems that it is not fully accepted that disposal is as much part of the development of collections as acquisitions
A different approach to disposal is much needed, says Steph Scholten, the director of the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, who in 2016, in a previous role in Amsterdam, helped develop the Dutch Museums Association’s guidelines for disposal. “It still seems that it is not fully accepted that disposal is as much part of the development of collections as acquisitions,” he says.
The current methods of sale can be lossmaking for low-value items. But new sales platforms “provide museums with relatively easy and accessible routes to dispose of items with usually limited cultural and financial value”, says Scholten. “It makes the processes of actual disposal easier, instead of having to develop individual institutional relations with auction houses or spending a lot of time offering items online.”
The MuseumDepotShop came about after extensive talks in the Netherlands about normalising disposal and developing concrete practice. Previous online platforms that enabled museums to arrange transfers – similar to the MA’s Find an Object database – had not been as successful as hoped. Following the publication of the 2016 guidance, “the need for practical approaches to the disposal of relatively large groups of low-value items became clearer and clearer”, says Scholten.
The shop is a non-profit foundation operated by a commercial museum storage company that was already well known in the Dutch sector. It collects, stores, photographs and distributes the objects on behalf of the institution, with both parties sharing the proceeds of a sale. Most of the items involved are low-value, mass-produced goods that have an average sales price of about £100. Buyers include collectors and people looking for unique gifts.
Scholten doesn’t see any ethical issues with these new methods of sale. “Disposal decisions are made freely by museums themselves and these platforms merely provide a practical route to execute them,” he says. “In most cases, it means committing less resources than executing these processes by museums themselves. I like the idea the objects will get a new lease of life with new owners.”
The foundation chose to enter the UK because it has a similar regulatory system to the Netherlands. A number of UK museums have already signed up, with many more expressing an interest.
Concerns that cash-strapped museums – or their managing bodies – might be tempted by the financial incentive of a quick sale are wide of the mark, says Arjen Pels Rijken, one of MuseumDepotShop’s founders.
“No museum will do that,” he says. “We’ve never come across such a situation.”
Pels Rijken says the platform has rules in place to govern against such activities, but even without them, it would be unlikely that anyone would risk the reputational damage for items of low value.
New platforms are not the only development on the horizon in the next few years – the terminology around disposal is also beginning to change in an attempt to overhaul its public image. There is a need to reframe the practice in more positive terms, says Jack Kirby, the head of collections at the Science Museum Group.
“We’ve started using the language of transfer and removal,” he says. “Transfer implies that we are passing custodianship. It’s not about putting things in a skip, it’s about doing something useful. We want to demystify collections, not cover them in jargon.”
The US experience
The Association of Art Museum Directors in the United States relaxed its deaccessioning guidance during the pandemic, resulting in more financially motivated disposals to keep museums afloat.
Heated debate ensued, as 75 museum directors and historians signed a letter criticising Newark Museum of Art for “monetising its collecting” by auctioning off 17 high-value paintings.
Disposal is also increasingly seen as part of a strategy to diversify collections, with some museums pursuing “progressive deaccessioning” in recent years.
But this approach is also controversial; Baltimore Museum of Art, which sold seven paintings by artists well represented in its collection in 2018, recently cancelled the auction of three paintings after a public outcry, with accusations that its “carelessness” would betray the purposes of the museum sector and put off donors.
Focusing on public benefit has resulted in more positive media coverage for transfers. “Once you approach it from that angle of overall public benefit, you get to the point where it’s not of public benefit for you to put it back into your stores, where it will take up space,” says Kirby. “You can show it will end up somewhere that someone is caring for it.”
Once you approach it from the angle of overall public benefit, you get to the point where it’s not of public benefit to put it back into your stores
Another obstacle to disposal is the widespread loss of specialist curators in the regions as a result of the austerity of the past decade. In response, some museums are moving towards a more collective approach to disposal, enlisting one expert to help multiple institutions with collections reviews based on region or subject specialism. “It would be great if more funders could support this work and see it as having a positive benefit,” says Kirby.
If the process ends in financially motivated disposal – the last resort in the MA’s disposal toolkit – museums may be understandably wary of attaching a financial value to collections and heritage assets. But Kirby says this is not an issue for the kind of items that account for most disposals.
“We’re talking about low-value items,” he says. “We can’t keep everything that was mass produced in the 20th century.”
The Museums Association’s Ethics Committee’s has issued clarification of its guidance on the method of sale of deaccessioned collection items.
The guidance states: “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 sale must be carried out in a way that is open and transparent. Concerns about a specific sale should be raised with the Ethics Committee.”
The committee’s update has been issued as organisations and private companies are beginning to look at new ways of disposing of deaccessioned material, including the forthcoming launch of MuseumDepotShop, which plans to sell deaccessioned items of relatively low financial value via its website.