How will our successors judge the disposal decisions we make?
One way of approaching this question is to look at past disposals, as I have done for the science and technology collections of National Museums Scotland and shared in a paper published in the autumn 2019 edition of the Science Museums Group Journal.
Collecting started in 1855 for the Industrial Museum of Scotland and has continued to the present day. Deaccessioning appears intermittently in our database record starting in 1867, but most occurred during and shortly after world war two when thousands of
“obsolete industrial samples and so forth” were disposed of.The museum’s annual report for 1946 shows familiar concern about the destination of deaccessioned material, but in contrast to our current policy almost expresses a presumption in favour of disposal.
For example, it states: “[…] much that has been hoarded since 1856 has been re-examined most carefully and re-classified. Only material clearly of use in our new schemes has been retained; the remainder has been disposed of by sale, by gift to appropriate institutions, or by destruction if obviously of no value.”
In 1946, the disposal board personally examined proposed disposals and almost invariably approved. The deaccessioning was most active on the earliest material, and more likely to keep objects which had been more recently acquired – we now have only 10% of all items collected during the 19th century.By considering what is currently on display we can get a rough assessment of the modern use of the collections. Display is only one way to measure the use of collections, but it is a snapshot conveniently available from our database.
As is common, only 5.3% of our science and technology material is on display. This percentage varies according to when the items were acquired: more recent acquisitions are more likely to be on display.
For material accessioned this century the figure is 8.2%, which includes objects acquired for present displays. Going back in time, this percentage decreases steadily. Only 2.5% of collecting from 1900-1917 is on display – this percentage is after 51% disposal.
For the material collected in the 19th century the percentage on current display is significantly higher at 7.7%. These remaining collections are nearly as likely to be displayed as our contemporary collecting.
I attribute this to the deaccessioning and disposal of 90% of the collection judged “unsuitable for display” or “quite useless”.
Our predecessors parted with some material which we now regret (including Wedgwood ceramics showing firing faults) but overall these older collections were refined by two periods of curatorial thought, well separated in time.
The first two decades of the museum’s acquisitions give the impression of collecting in haste, rather than discrimination – they had a rather large museum building to fill.
Neither the decisions made during the initial accessioning, nor those made during the mid-20th century disposal are exactly those we would make today, but in combination they have left us with a fine collection with considerable current potential and relieved us of the care of thousands of specimens.
Tacye Phillipson is the senior curator of science at National Museums Scotland