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Disposal and transfer of collections in contemporary museum practice

The public perception of museums is that of stable, enduring institutions with collections that, once accepted, are to be maintained in that place forever. Yet, in reality, objects and collections have always circulated between collectors, institutions and the world at large. Such processes are accepted curatorial practice. As well as the example of Brooklyn Museum’s costume collection given at the start of this paper one might also cite the medical collections at the Science Museum that are on loan from the Wellcome Trust, the transfer of navigational instruments from the National Maritime Museum to the Science Museum in the 1990s, 500 objects from the Americas, Africa and Asia that were transferred from National Museums Wales to the Horniman Museum in 1980, and the transfer of early twentieth-century sculpture from the V&A to Tate in the early 1980s.[23] Indeed, a major part of the National Media Museum collection, the Daily Herald Archive, was itself transferred to the Museum from the National Portrait Gallery in 1983. And where collections are disposed of by museums, two thirds of them find their way into other museums’ collections (Merriman, 2008).  It is rare that museum objects that are in good condition are removed from the ecology of accredited institutions.

While accepted professional practice, disposal from museums is controversial, perhaps precisely because it seems to contradict the function of the institution as a place where collections are maintained in the public interest. In 2003 the National Museum Directors Council (NMDC[24]), published a report, bluntly titled Too Much Stuff?. Intended as a contribution to the then current discussions on the disposal of museum collections, it set out a bold statement that museums should:

be willing to dispose of objects when this will better ensure their preservation, ensure that they are more widely used and enjoyed, or place them in a context where they are more valued and better understood. Disposal should be regarded as a proper part of collection management.[25]

And went on to remind readers that:

Collections are held not for the benefit of individual institutions, but for the public as a whole.

However, despite this categorical endorsement of disposal as a valid and important part of good collections management, it remains one that is still only rarely used by museums. Writing in 2008 in the journal Cultural Trends, Nick Merriman was disappointed that museums were failing to use disposal adequately as a way of dealing with what he saw as a looming sustainability crisis. Merriman noted that while the ethics of disposal had been largely settled by successive updates to the Museum Associations Code of Ethics[26], museums were simply not using it. At the same time public collections continued to grow rapidly, with acquisitions outstripping disposals at a rate of between seven hundred and fifty and one thousand to one.[27] As stored collections are not resource-neutral but require continued investment in collections care, documentation, digitisation and the facilitation of public access, the exponential growth of museum collections poses a very serious challenge to the financial and environmental sustainability of museums. But pragmatic, managerial motivations for disposal are not, in themselves, effective. Merriman sought to provide a further rational, ascribing the ‘taboo’ and ‘presumption against disposal’ as stemming from nineteenth-century conceptions of museums as ‘an objective record of collective memories’.[28] He argues that we should instead accept the implications of post-modern approaches to knowledge:

If we begin to see museum collections as historically contingent and partial, and we accept the implications of academic discourse on forgetting, then this frees us up to take our own responsibility for active stewardship of collections rather than feeling that the role of the curator is simply to accept their predecessors’ decisions which have to be preserved intact for an indefinable posterity.

This is a powerful argument for museums and for curators to actively shape their collections in line with their current needs, rather than passively maintaining them for their own sake. However, as we will discuss later, this view of museums is not one that is well understood outside the profession and, in fact, runs counter to prevailing public sentiment.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170710/002