Disposing of Museum Collections – Should it stay or should it go?

In a recent edition of the Museums Journal, Maurice Davies ponders the need to define a USP for museums. As far as I’m concerned – and I’m sure I’m not alone in this – they already have one: their collections.

A cursory examination of the current debates in museums – as exemplified by the Museum Associations (MA) Museums 2020 discussion paper would suggest that somehow the idea that collections are what we do is deeply unfashionable. The whole tenant of Museums 2020 is that museums must proactively try to make a difference to communities and society (promote their instrumental value) rather than assume that their (intrinsic) value to society is recognised by virtue of their very existence. With the emphasis on well-being, communities, participation, child poverty and other politically acceptable concepts it is all too easy to assume that social work will replace preserving, displaying and researching collections as the fundamental aspect of museum work. Yet delve a little deeper and you may be surprised by the extent to which collections feature in Museums 2020 – the word appears at least once on most pages. The aim of Museums 2020 is to encourage us to think differently about collections not to forget about them all together.

So, in order to be able to deliver the impact-driven museum valued by society Museums 2020 is suggesting, we are urged to collect ‘to better represent a museum’s current and future audiences’. So having been previously told we have Too Much Stuff, it is now being suggested that we might have the wrong stuff. What does all this mean for acquisition and disposal in the 21st century?

Firstly, we are gently being encouraged to recognise that acquisition and disposal are not two activities that exist in isolation. They are part of a continuum of responsible collection management articulated within a Collection Development Policy. BSI PAS 197 Code of Practice for Cultural Collections Management (BSI 2009) defines collection development as: the collecting of new items, researching and reviewing the existing collection and removing items in accordance with the collecting organisation’s policies and procedures. An effective Collection Development Policy places as much emphasis on why something is being collected as opposed to what is being collected. We are encouraged to consult with the people we are collecting for through mechanisms such as significance assessments. CyMAL: Museums Archives and Libraries Wales will shortly be publishing a toolkit that provides guidance on how and when such assessments should be undertaken (Why do we have it? A Significance Process and Template). Compliance with the new Accreditation Standard now requires a Collection Development Policy rather than just acquisition and disposal policies; a model is currently in development.

Secondly, we are all being encouraged to share more. Loans are increasingly being seen as an element of collection development, for example in the recently published strategy for Scotland’s museums. In Wales a key theme to emerge from the Museum Strategy published in 2009 was that of creating ‘distributed national collections’. This notion is predicated on the idea that we should focus less on which museum actually owns something or where it is positioned geographically and more on how something can be used to develop interesting and engaging narratives. Using these collections is then dependent on developing an open and responsive culture of sharing between organisations. The MA’s Smarter Loans initiative aspires to do this.

So, whilst a more pragmatic approach to sharing collections is to be applauded, we are still left with a fundamental problem – museums generally already have more stuff than they can reasonably store or display. If the items we’ve previously collected are now deemed to be the wrong ones, we need to be able to get rid of them to create space for other material. But most museums struggle to get rid of things once they have acquired them. Thirdly, then, we need to create an environment in which all forms of disposal are acknowledged as having a legitimate place in the lifecycle of a museum. The Code of Ethics for Museums encourages us to consider disposal by transfer but there is a finite limit to how much stuff can be endlessly circulated amongst already overcrowded museums. The MA Ethics Committee and the Arts Council England Accreditation Committee are experiencing a slow but steady rise in the number of requests for advice regarding disposal by sale. Whilst it is important that such disposals are only undertaken when certain criteria are met (the item is outside the collecting remit of the organisation; that any funds raised will only be used to improve the long-term benefit of the remaining collection and not to cover short-term revenue shortfalls; and that the sale is clearly an option of last resort), we need to stop behaving as if the act of disposal, especially in this manner, will cause the world to end. If approached in the right way, it doesn’t – and the point is to enable collecting of different stuff not to stop collecting entirely.

As ever, there are ‘third ways’ which will probably keep us from the precipice for a little longer. A number of creative ways of collecting are already utilised across the sector. Many national museums regularly purchase items in partnership; Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales owns a number of paintings jointly with the National Library of Wales and the National Gallery. The principle objective of the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation is to support the arts, culture and heritage for the public benefit, acquiring exceptional works of art for the nation. The Foundation currently owns two works of art that since their purchase in the 1990’s have been on exhibition in various museums across the UK and around the world. Whilst I have my reservations about the UK government’s current drive to increase philanthropy, let us hope for more enlightened arrangements of this nature.