Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum’s (RAMM) disposal project was an outcome of a collections review between 2011-13, which was funded by Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund and later won the Collections Trust Collections Best Practice award in 2013.The review highlighted small areas of the collection that would benefit from rationalisation, in contrast to other areas that merited further research and new uses in the museum.
With a firm grounding in the Museums Association’s (MA) disposals toolkit and Code of Ethics, the process was developed in-house by Julien Parsons, the senior collections officer and Claire Gulliver, the collections review officer and subsequently by me, Jenny Durrant, then assistant curator.Object proposals were made by the subject specialist curators and assistant curators using an in-house proforma document. These proposals were centralised, checked and collated into summary lists.
The nominating curator sought views from other staff including the audience development team and identified the potential disposal outcome – such as transfer, use in the handling collection or going in the recycling bin.
The list was taken to the regular collections team meeting (comprising curatorial, conservation, exhibitions and digital media staff), where they discussed the items for approval or rejection.
A final list was then sent to the museum manager to seek approval from the nominated representative of the governing body (in this case, Exeter City Council).
At this point, objects were advertised on the MA’s Find an Object search or potential recipient museums contacted. With no registrar or collections manager, the curatorial team was responsible for keeping all documentation up-to-date, and physically removing objects from the stores.For peace of mind a proposed object could be withdrawn from the process at any point, allowing discoveries during provenance research or potential new uses to be considered.
The process is ongoing, and after a five-year period containing five batches of proposals, many objects have been removed including:
- A world war one German artillery shell, which was transferred to Hartlepool Museum after a chance conversation at a conference. This was an important object with a fascinating story, and fitted RAMM’s collecting policy, but it had a stronger significance to Hartlepool. Its size, weight and condition meant RAMM was unable to include it its world war one centenary commemorations, but Hartlepool Museum expressed an interest in including it in its new displays. The press release about the transfer made the front page of local newspapers as a good news story, without criticism.
- A 19th-century boot-making machine with Bristol provenance, which falls outside our collecting areas. It was transferred to Bristol City Museum.
- Sewing machines. No museums were interested, so these were donated to Workaid charity, which refurbish items for reuse in African countries.
- Historic office equipment. Again, no museums were interested but a local school requested and accepted two typewriters for handling and teaching. The remainder went to a local auction, with the money ringfenced for collections use including purchasing conservation-grade packing materials.
- A small number of 1980s Christmas cards were recycled. These had been accessioned when the museum undertook small scale contemporary collecting of social history, but they did not meet the current collecting policy criteria and had no discernible use.
- Two small archaeological archives were transferred to local independent museums as the material had strong connections to those areas and the recipient museum has professional staff with the knowledge and expertise to curate and use them.
The disposal process has emphasised that the collection is dynamic – a healthy collection needs items being added and removed as necessary. In conjunction with disposal, the acquisitions process was revised, and both processes now emphasise the consideration of the purpose of the museum, and how it can meet its audience’s needs now and in the future, within a sustainable framework.
Staff can reflect on the nature and purpose of the stored collections. Like many museums, the collection contains items that aren’t of enough value to remain there – either because the object is better suited to another museum, or because its value (aesthetic, scientific, cultural or historical) is not significant enough in comparison to other objects.
This process acknowledges these value judgements and allows staff to do something about it.
Finally, the process has created space – while this cannot be a reason for disposal, it is a welcome outcome that enables the remaining collections to be better organised, conserved and used.
Jenny Durrant is a PhD researcher in museum studies at the University of Leicester