Editorial: Disposal - let's have a public conversation - Museums Association

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Editorial: Disposal – let’s have a public conversation

In museums, as well as a strong presumption against disposal, there is also a strong presumption that the public would …
In museums, as well as a strong presumption against disposal, there is also a strong presumption that the public would be suitably shocked and horrified if museums started getting rid of bits of their collections.

And it's true that, in the past, when museums have suffered the bad publicity that is sometimes associated with the subject, their visitors, and potential visitors, have rounded on them. But often these have been media-led campaigns where a local newspaper has blown the issue out of proportion for the sake of a 'Museum flogs off family silver' headline.

It's actually quite difficult to deduce what the public really thinks and whether it even cares. But hopefully, this is about to change.

Last month, the Museums Association (MA) launched its consultation on disposal, which will include an element of research into public opinion. Of course this doesn't mean that the ethics department at the MA will be standing outside your local Tesco with a clipboard. But it does mean that, perhaps for the first time, we will have an idea what the public thinks, and will be able to gauge what it understands about disposal from museum collections.

The consultation is not just to test public opinion; the views of the people who work in the sector are also being sought. All members of the MA should have received a questionnaire by now and there is an online version too.

The survey doesn't dodge the difficult issues: it begins by questioning whether the 'strong presumption against disposal' enshrined in the MA's Code of Ethics should remain in place. Other questions include whether retention within the public domain should still be a priority and under what circumstances, if any, disposal by sale is acceptable.

The consultation runs until the end of October and the responses will be used to draw up a new disposals toolkit, which should be available by the end of the year.

At next month's MA conference, one of the first sessions will be on disposal and this will be a great opportunity to influence the people who will be writing the new guidelines.

To set the scene for this discussion, the October edition of Museums Journal will carry a feature on the history of disposal looking at some of the famous, and infamous, cases as well as examining trends and changes in attitude over the years.

Initial research seems to suggest that major discussions around disposal only come up occasionally; it is ten years since the current disposal guidelines were written and 15 years since there was a substantial debate at conference or in Museums Journal. If you want to have your say about disposal, grasp the nettle now.

Sharon Heal, editor
sharon@museumsassociation.org

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