Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Deaccessioning in museums - a link that inspired a ramble

I update this blog so sporadically now that it's almost a farce. But today is International Museums Day, so i've been kickstarted. I also found this link i'd been meaning to write about for, ooh, months now: What should museums throw out?

The link itself goes to a small gallery highlighting some items that were on display in an exhibition at University College London called "Disposal" - one I would've really loved to have checked out. None of the images themselves are particularly striking, but the little slideshow gives a bit of fodder for thought and discussion.

The process of accessioning objects into a museum collection is not that difficult - it comes in, you document it, you store it, you give it a place where it should belong. It is part of the order-making that I love so much about collection management. Deaccessioning, on the other hand, is a much trickier process.

At the surface of it all is the question, how? How can someone (or even a group of someones) decide what stays and what goes from any collection, big or small? Someone had to make the decision to take the object on in the first place - in many museums this was a decision made long ago by a person who no longer works for the same museum (or who has passed away long ago, if your museum's collection goes back far enough - which many do!).

This is where museum collecting rides along the fine lines of fetishism and hoarding. Everything seemed like a good idea when it was brought into the collection - and indeed much of it is a great idea to have in there - but how does a curator or museum board weigh up one object's usefulness as part of a museum collection over another?

One object may have amazing research potential, the other may be not necessarily unique but an excellent piece to display. One object could be kept "just in case" it's needed for either, its potential being the key. Some objects may indeed still be part of museum collections simply due to the fact that some important person many years ago felt that it should be. Why have a box full of pottery sherds when one as a representative sample is enough? Who needs 30 different tapas cloths when one can illustrate the type of textile that it is?

Every object has a story. In and of themselves, and then a story as a museum object. While two boomerangs may look superficially alike, when you look at their histories you may find that both are equally relevant to have in your museum collection.

To say, "yes, that piece is something we need for our museum collections and/or displays" is easy. To say no is usually very hard. There's a reason why policy on this from museum to museum is tricky in its wording. There's a reason why deaccessioning happens so very rarely. Saying no is hard to do.

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