A “deaccession” of a work of art is understood to be the permanent physical removal of a work from, and relinquishment of its ownership by a museum or other institution or entity that had formally accessioned said work. The deaccession may be for the purposes of sale, exchange, or other type of disposal.
A “public trust” is understood to be a museum, educational institution, or other entity that was established as a not-for-profit, tax-exempt entity and, consistent with that status, is obligated to serve the public interest. Some permanent collections, such as university or municipal museums, may be in the possession of entities that reside within a parent organization that is considered a public trust.
This can, and usually is, a long and difficult procedure. Here we look at how to deaccession an object in a step by step guide. Each museum has slightly different policies so this is an example guide.
Deaccessioning is the process by which an accessioned object is removed permanently from the museum collection. It is a method of refining and improving the collection.
Both deaccessioning and the disposal of objects from the collection should reflect policy rather than the exigencies of a particular moment.
The museum will honor restrictions attached to a gift or bequest.
Deaccessioning should not be used under pressure to raise funds for the acquisition of another object.
Documented sets of objects will not be broken by retaining part and deaccessioning part without careful consideration. If there are only two identical examples of fragile objects in the collection, the duplicate shall not be deaccessioned unless its condition is such that it cannot be considered a possible substitute for the first one.
Deaccessioning must not endanger the integrity of the collection and must follow current guidelines set by the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors.
Criteria- What questions can you ask of the object?
1. Does the object conform to the collection criteria?
2. Is the object poor quality?
3. Is the object is a duplicate?
4. Is there a similar but superior object already in the collection?
5. Can the object be properly stored?
6. Is the object is in poor condition and beyond conservation?
After those questions and considerations have been accounted for then the process of deaccessioning the object begins.
Step 1: Recommendations
The Curator identifies deaccession candidates, establishing reasons for deaccession and works with Curatorial Administrative Assistant to develop a list. The Curator will work with the Registration Department and other staff to check paper and electronic records, verifying the following information about the proposed objects:
- Accession number
- Object name and other name
- Description, material, dimensions
- Maker, date, place of manufacture
- Publication and exhibition history
- Photography of object
- Method of acquisition and restrictions
- If a gift or bequest, donor name and address (or name and address of heirs to notify)
Recommendations for deaccessioning may be made by the Director of Museum Collections in consultation with the curator of that medium, the Museum Collections Department, colleagues in the Conservation Department, Academic Programs, and Public Programs divisions.
Step 2: Approval
Deaccessions will be made on the recommendation of the majority of the curators, the Director of Museum Collections, and the Museum Director with the approval of the Collections Committee and then the Board of Trustees or Executive Committee acting on behalf of the Board of Trustees.
Step 3: Notification to donors
Donors (or heirs) are then contacted via letter to notify them of the proposed deaccessions. At any time throughout process, and upon recommendation of the Museum Director, an object can be removed from the proceedings and retained. The Museum Director may, but is not obligated to, exercise this option if the donor has strong objections.
Step 4: Disposal
After final approval, staff will make arrangements to dispose of the deaccessioned object in a manner that meets the guidelines established by the American Association of Museums. Methods of disposal may include one of the following:
a. Public auction
b. Gift to another museum or educational institution
c. Trade with another museum or educational institution
d. Sale to another museum or educational institution
e. Trade with a dealer to upgrade the collection—a rare exception and only with express approval by the Board of Trustees or the Executive Committee acting on behalf of the Board of Trustees
Step 5: Documentation
A full record of the deaccession procedure, recommendations, approvals, and disposal form a part of the records maintained by the Registration Department.
This resource from the CAA gives guidelines for best practices concerning deaccessioning items from a museum collection.
“Deaccession and Disposal for Small Museums” is a fact sheet published by Museums & Galleries of New South Wales. The best thing about this is the diagram of the process that you can use to guide the process of removing inappropriate collections items from your own organization.
Wondering how to go about deaccessioning an object? This AASLH webinar “Deaccessioning is Not a 4-Letter Word” should give you some ideas.