Internal shot of the Combined Military Services Museum

Museum criticised for selling donated medals

Rebecca Atkinson, 11.08.2015
Combined Military Services Museum says it will change its donation and disposal policies
A museum that came under fire for selling donated second world war medals has told Museums Journal that it is changing its rules on accepting donations as a result.

The medals, which belonged to the donor’s father, were given to the Combined Military Services Museum in Maldon, Essex, in April. However a month later, the donor, Christine Hinde, was contacted by a collector who said he had purchased the medals on eBay for £32.

Hinde told ITV news that she had not given the museum permission to sell the medals, and had donated them in the hope they would “be in safe keeping for generations to come”.

In July, the museum’s director and founder, Richard Wooldridge, wrote to Hinde to apologise for any distress caused by the sale. He said that the museum was unable to store and display every item donated to it and, in this case, it already had a number of similar medals in its collection.

Speaking to Museums Journal, Wooldridge said: “In light of this event, we are tightening our rules on accepting donations and disposals to ensure such events do not occur again.

“However, the sad reality is that we, and I am sure many other museums, will be extremely cautious about accepting donations [as a result negative media reports].”

Wooldridge added that the museum’s trustees had decided to pass the medals onto a dealer to sell in order to purchase other artefacts for display.

The medals were not accessioned into the Combined Military Services Museum's collection. The museum is Accredited.

Janet Ulph, from the University of Leicester’s School of Law, said that many museum trustees incorrectly assume that objects cannot be returned to donors once a gift has been made. She is working on new guidelines for curatorially-motivated disposals, which will be published in September.

“In my new guidance on disposals, I suggest either offering medals or other objects with a sentimental value to another museum or returning them to the donor,” she said. “I make it clear that museums can sell items if other museums do not want them as part of the process of a curatorially motivated disposal.”

The Museums Association (MA) is updating its code of ethics, which includes guidance on disposal and accepting donations.

Alistair Brown, the MA’s policy officer, said the key issue with this case was the lack of consultation with the donor: “It looks like the museum has failed to act in the public interest, starting with the acceptance of the medals and continuing right through to their sale.

"In doing so, the museum has greatly hurt the feelings of a donor and has brought a great deal of unwanted attention on itself. This episode is a very timely illustration of the need for an ethical approach in all areas of museum practice.” 

Comments

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Janet Ulph
MA Member
Professor, University of Leicester
29.10.2015, 17:05
I took advice from the Charity Commission before saying in my legal guidance that, subject to certain conditions, objects of low cultural and financial value could legally be returned to a donor (if the trustees so decided). It is what people would expect if the object cannot be used by the museum in question or another museum.
As David Fleming indicates, it is important to promote public trust in museums.
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
26.08.2015, 14:46
It's all about trust. Christine Hinde believed the medals to be safely in a museum's custody, and she believed they would be kept there. That's what donors to museums expect. They do not expect that the museum will sell on the items, EVER. And if a museum decides it wants to do this, then it must obtain the agreement of the donor. If it doesn't do that, then it is betraying trust, even if it isn't breaking the law.
Darran Cowd
Collections Officer, National Coal Mining Museum for England
21.08.2015, 09:47
I'd like to add in relation the legalities of returning items to donors - in particular items accessioned into collections that are then considered for deaccession and disposal. If your museum is a charity it might be wise to check your objects & articles of association, having taken advice from the Charity Commission in the past while working for charitable body that was going through a disposals process we weren't legally able to return items to donors if no specific condition had been made as part of the original deposit.
This naturally doesn't apply to items that are only on deposit for consideration as a potential deposit...in which case, as probably should've happened in the CMSM case, the gift should've been declined and returned.
19.08.2015, 18:29
I find it hard to believe that museum trustees are unaware of the rules governing accessioning and de-accessioning of artifacts under their care. If a medal ( or anything else)is regarded as surplus to requirements it clearly ought to be offered back to the donor, who can accept it or give permission for it to be sold. In this particular case there are strong suspicions that such a policy was not followed because there was good money to be made by directly selling the object on the open market.It is good for museums to be reminded periodically that without the trust of actual or potential donors museums would have no artifacts to display and curators would have no jobs.
Anonymous
MA Member
17.08.2015, 11:54
I am not supporting the actions of the museum, but to play devil's advocate in this case most museum Entry forms explain to the donor that objects are now the property of the museum and donors will not be contacted in the event of disposal. I agree the donor should have been contacted, however most museum collections will have objects whose donor has long since gone and trace cannot be found. Is it sensible to ask the Museum to trace the donor in the first case of disposal - how long could this process take? I agree they should not have been collected in the first place.
I wonder what the public response would be to something other than medals, attached as they are to a name and an act of bravery. Would people consider it an injustice if an old washing machine was being disposed of, for instance?
Cases like this serve to show our disposals policies need exploring and ethically debated, and perhaps museums need to be a bit more open about disposals in the public eye. Unfortunately the press from this will harm museum donations in the future, and may make museums fearful about disposing of objects.
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
17.08.2015, 15:46
In response to your comment, I agree that in many cases it's not possible for the donor to be contacted. (Although, as you acknowledge, in this instance the fact the objects were passed to a dealer so soon after the donor gave them to the museum rather rules out that argument.)

I also agree that the nature of the objects (ie her father's war medals) made this case of more public interest than something less sentimental and personal would have.

But I don't think it is the "press" from this story that will harm museum donations, but the actions of the museum in the first place.

Some members of the press will also turn disposal (or "too many items in storage") into negative stories, but museums have a role in educating them about best practice and ethical guidelines - and ensure they practice what they preach.
Anonymous
MA Member
12.08.2015, 16:17
This is a clear break of trust with the Donor and can only harm ALL Museum donations in the future. The entry form should state clearly that any donations will be returned to the Donor if they are unacceptable to the Museum and once they are accepted they become Accessioned and should be treated as such. Disgraceful.
Anonymous
MA Member
12.08.2015, 14:31
"He said that the museum was unable to store and display every item donated to it and, in this case, it already had a number of similar medals in its collection."

If this were the case then why were the medals accepted in the first place? Saying 'no' may have upset Christine Hinde, but surely the greater upset is to see objects she obviously attached a great deal of emotional value to, sold without any consultation. If an Entry Form was signed then Hinde would no longer have had a legal entitlement to the medals, but the museum should never have collected objects it could not sustainably care for, and Trustees should be informed that decisions on disposal via sale cannot be made without consultation and professional advice. £32 was hardly worth the negative publicity and reputational damage this type of incidence can cause to an organisation which is instilled with public trust. We all know times are tough, and sometimes difficult decisions have to be made, but surely transfer or a return to the donor if the issue was storage and care was preferable to this type of sale?