More than 10 years ago, I published an article in Cultural Trends about a research project I had undertaken as part of my Clore Leadership Fellowship. I was concerned that museums were continuing to increase their collections, while complaining that stores were full.
Object disposals were still relatively infrequent, partly because justifying them seemed based on pragmatism, rather than principles. Museums didn’t have a theoretical language for talking about these issues, yet the model of constant growth needed re-examination.
My research looked at thinking on sustainable development, starting with the 1987 Brundtland Report’s definition that it is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
This confirmed that museums were not developing sustainably: we were bequeathing collections that were difficult to manage, often in sub-optimal conditions – and we were continuing to add to them.
I looked at work in neurobiology, which showed how memory can function properly only by “forgetting’” most things and retaining only the key things for conscious memory. In other words, forgetting is key to a healthy mind.
Writing on the anthropology of memory revealed how forgetting constitutes a vital part of collective or public memory, with difficult pasts slipping quietly from consciousness as part of a healing process. Under-represented groups then often fight to have this forgetting overturned in acts of remembrance and recognition of trauma.
Museums can be seen as “memory institutions”, and are often considered repositories of collective memories in object and record form. But we have not allowed these memory institutions to “forget” by letting go of some of the material they hold.
The model for museums is that everything must be “remembered” by being treated as of equal value and being kept “for posterity”. Our trustees act on the public’s behalf to ensure that this happens. As a result, our memory institutions are clogged up and unable to use their object memories properly.
I concluded that museums needed to regard collections as dynamic rather than fixed, and that to ensure a healthy ecology, we should see disposal as a natural part of developing collections. We should be prepared to challenge the acquisition decisions of our predecessors, rather than treat them as if they were sacrosanct.
And, in particular, we should accept that objects are not all of equal value. Some collections, such as systematically collected fieldwork specimens, are of vital research interest and will not be disposed of. Others, poorly provenanced and with little contemporary relevance, are ripe for review.
By using disposal as a tool of collections development, we will be able to pass on a sustainable legacy to future generations, and to collect with renewed vigour and confidence. However, I warned that none of our current professional structures reward people for acting sustainably by reducing collections.
On the contrary, plaudits tend to go to new building projects, larger stores and the enhancement of collections through acquisitions. Disposals are far more time consuming and potentially contentious than acquisitions (with some justification), and it is often simply easier to limp along with a congested store, rather than tackle the problem.
Ten years later, things have barely changed. But what has changed is public concern about sustainability. Museums are engaging with issues around the environment and biodiversity. But we desperately need to confront the viability of our model of constant growth of collections, buildings and programmes, as part of this.
Carving out resources to tackle collections reviews and disposal, in recognition of the importance of forgetting for memory institutions, is vital to this.
Nick Merriman is the chief executive of the Horniman Museum and Gardens, London, and an honorary professor of museum studies at the University of Manchester