MA defends IWM’s disposal of films, books, pamphlets and periodicals

Patrick Steel, 11.01.2017
Disposals are in line with MA’s Code of Ethics
The Museums Association (MA) has defended the Imperial War Museum’s (IWM) decision to dispose of 27,000 films and 40,000 books, pamphlets and periodicals from its collection, following criticism that it was selling items at “bargain basement prices”.

According to the Sunday Times, the Sussex-based dealer Alan Hewer bought a rare set of military journals from the museum’s collection for £18 when they were priced at £2,000 online, and a rare book for £30, which was priced at £1,350 elsewhere.

A spokesman for trades union PCS said: “Our national museums and galleries maintain artefacts and archive material not purely for their monetary value but for the enjoyment and enrichment of visitors and society as a whole.

“They shouldn’t be put in a position where they’re having to sell off items at bargain basement prices to make up budget shortfalls, the government should be investing to ensure collections are properly managed for future generations.”

But the museum has pointed out that the disposals are either copies, duplicates, or outside the remit of the IWM’s collections.

None of the films was sold, but instead they have been returned to rights holders, gifted to other institutions or destroyed where the content is already better preserved in other formats.

Because the library material was not accessioned to the museum’s collections, and is widely available in other UK libraries, apart from a few gifts to other institutions, the IWM decided to offer it at auction.

Alistair Brown, the MA’s policy officer, said: “The IWM has been in touch with the MA about its rationalisation project and we are satisfied that it met the criteria of the Code of Ethics and the disposal toolkit.”

The disposals are part of a collections review programme at IWM that began in 2010. Since then the museum has disposed of a number of objects, including aircraft and vehicles, gifting to other museums where appropriate, selling, or destroying the object, depending on the nature, condition and significance of the item.

An IWM spokeswoman said: “The IWM follows a rigorous process before the decision to dispose of an item is reached. This is led by our archivists, curators and librarians who bring their recommendations to our committee who appraise acquisition and disposal.

“The disposal must also be agreed by the board of trustees and others within IWM. We seek expert advice as needed, and if required, approval from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is sought.

“From October 2015 onwards IWM sold material valuing approximately £39,185 through W&H Peacock auction house, prices were set by the market on the day of sale.

"The money made from the sales is ring-fenced in specific budgets to be used for new acquisitions to support our collections development plan.”


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23.01.2017, 18:33

It seems to me that the IWM is being rather disingenuous in their description of their disposal policy.

It clearly states in their policy documents that their first priority when disposing of material must be to offer such objects to other interested parties i.e. museums, libraries & universities. Failing any take up, the material should then be advertised through the Museum Association or similar outlet. Monetary considerations are not meant to be any part of the process. It’s hard to believe that this policy has been followed to any degree. Much of the material is extremely scarce & would likely be snapped up by any institution teaching military studies.

The second question is why the books have been consigned to a minor country auction house. Peacocks are not known as military specialists & the title of each sale made no mention of books. The usual channel would be either through Dominic Winter’s saleroom, the leading dealer in this field, or through one of the London houses such as Bloomsbury. It rather smacks of trying to bury the sale.

Thirdly why have the residue been sent to an online dealers who are selling the books at a fraction of their value which suggests they have paid nothing for them.

To sell duplicate copies is in itself a rather short-sited policy. If a book is common it is easily replaced but a rare one may be a much harder proposition. A good example of that is another ex-IWM book that came my way only yesterday – it was stamped inside ‘Fire Replacement’ which I think refers to a fire in the reading room sometime in the sixties. Fingers crossed that doesn’t happen again!