Museums under pressure to sell collections

Rebecca Atkinson, 06.10.2010
Pressure to sell collections will increase as the impact of funding cuts are felt, museum directors warn
Speaking at the Survival of the Fittest session at the Museums Association’s Conference, Rita McLean, head of museums and heritage services at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, predicted pressure on local authority museums to sell collections will increase as people start to feel the squeeze.

Around 20% of the audience at the session said their local authority had already proposed selling collections.

David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool, said that NML had ruled out selling collections but that it should be one option explored by museums.

“The magnitude of cuts is so high that everything has to be considered otherwise all you’re left with is cutting staff,” he explained. “But I don’t know how much of a sacred cow it is with the public.”

Georgia Butters, head of development and communications at the Royal Cornwall Museum, which has already sold two paintings from its collection, told delegates the public’s reaction to its sale was that it was preferable to services being scrapped.

“The biggest outcry was from the museum sector,” she added.


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13.10.2010, 20:58
Several questions arise.
The government wants philanthropy to play a greater part, but why will anyone leave bequests or give donations to the museums sector if the painting, sculpture or whatever can simply be flogged off when times are hard?
The fairly tight code for deaccessioning says items surplus to requirements (hard to define beyond doubt) should first be offered to another arm of the public sector. That won't raise any cash. Only as a last resort should they be sold. If it is unimportant, then clearly it won't raise significant funds - but if the item has real significance, i.e. real value, it is quite likely to trigger an appeal to keep it in the country - and need more public money. Or is the whole point to rely on the (not quite public) HLF for emergency funds, to the detriment of other areas of heritage?
The spokeswoman from Cornwall who has sold paintings says the biggest outcry was from the museums sector. That was assuredly not the case when Southampton City Gallery wanted to sell items last year. The public at large rose up in opposition and the sales were prevented. Galleries need the loyalty and support of a local following - this is not the best way to keep that.