Deaccessioning and Ethics

Ah, ethics.

I just emailed a client regarding an upcoming auction. They have a lot of items in their collection with no provenance (prizes from past dumpster dives), are in very poor condition, and/or are duplicates.

While I helped sort through these potential auction items and feel confident about our decisions, I did want to make sure that they were very familiar with the American Association of Museum‘s Code of Ethics.

Museums collect artifacts in the public trust, that is, a collecting institution receives items and holds them not as financial assets or personal collections, but for the public good. As collections manager at the Iowa Jewish Historical Society, for example, I can’t just walk in and give away something or sell it to a friend to pay for office supplies, willy-nilly. Instead, museum ethics dictate what I can and cannot do with the collection.

From AAM’s Code of Ethics:

The distinctive character of museum ethics derives from the ownership, care, and use of objects, specimens, and living collections representing the world’s natural and cultural common wealth. This stewardship of collections entails the highest public trust and carries with it the presumption of rightful ownership, permanence, care, documentation, accessibility, and responsible disposal.

In addition, when selling or otherwise disposing of accessioned (i.e. cataloged) items, the Code of Ethics also states that:

Disposal of collections through sale, trade, or research activities is solely for the advancement of the museum’s mission. Proceeds from the sale of nonliving collections are to be used consistent with the established standards of the museum’s discipline, but in no event shall they be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.

Not Iowa’s Pollock; at MOMA

In other words, you can’t sell a Jackson Pollock painting to support undergraduate scholarships, no matter how appealing that might seem. (Read the AAM/AAMD/AAMG’s joint statement here.)

Whether we work at a local history museum or with an internationally known work of art, ethical standards hold us all accountable for our actions.

What are your thoughts about the Pollock issue?

5 thoughts on “Deaccessioning and Ethics

  1. I’m glad that the University of Iowa has stepped away from selling this Pollock (unless they’re back at it again). It was never a good idea to sell it in the first place, because Guggenheim specifically dictated that it must not be sold or exchanged with other works of art. How could a collector feel if they knew that as soon as they died the work that they gave to the museum/gallery would be sold? Yes, creating scholarships to support students is great, but there are many ways of raising funds for scholarship. Art is not one of them.

    • Thanks for your comment. It can get trickier, as many institutions (and the IRS) define how long the organization must retain an item before re-evaluating and/or deaccessioning it. In my experience, the items at hand have been (mostly) insignificant items that are taking up space. In this case, we can deaccession (i.e. sell, transfer, or other dispose) the item for the betterment of the collection. As the economy tightens, more and more institutions are looking to their collection as a profit source — and I’m not completely opposed to having these conversations. We should reevaluate our collection from time to time, and I am definitely pro deaccessioning when the situation is right; we just need to make sure everyone at the table is thinking ethically, understands the repercussions, and has both the institution and the collection’s best interests in mind.

      • Museums are tricky. Well, although I studied Art History, I primarily deal with architectural history. I am also for deaccessioning an artwork, like you said, when the situation is right, but what happens if the donor says that the work must remain in the museum regardless of what happens to the museum itself? OK. I’ll need to read up on this, thanks for the post, it got me thinking.

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