There has recently been much talk, particularly in the art world, about deaccessioning.* This has been occasioned by a rash of attempts to sell off collections for cash in a down economy, especially in university museums and, most recently, at the National Academy Museum. In December, the NAM sold 2 paintings for $15 mil to support their operations and was promptly blackballed by the Association of Art Museum Directors: other museums are forbidden to lend to them. To some in the art world, this reaction seemed prudish and outmoded (but thankfully there are some great defenders of deaccessioning ethics), and a number of newspaper articles and so on have been written about this deaccessioning “controversy.”
There is no controversy. Selling off collections items for operating expenses is a violation of our core values.
Museums are, at our core, stewards. We hold collections in trust for the public. As Graham Beal of the Detroit Institute of Arts said recently, “The institution is there to safeguard the art. The art is not there to support the institution.” Our artifacts are not assets. In the US, museums are nonprofit organizations, not only because it’s a useful tax status (which also confers certain stewardship responsibilities), but because we are charities in the deepest sense of the word. We care for artifacts and are not only the stewards of our collections, but of a deep collective memory. We care for the public, too, by providing community space to consider, build and deepen the meaning of our collective experiences. We care for people by caring for things.
Museum ethics have been codified by the AAM, AAMD, AASLH and others to reflect this sacred trust the public has placed in us museums, to care for the material and natural culture of the past, present, and future. We do not, and should not, take this trust lightly.
*Don’t get me started about how in this discourse “museum”=”art museum” and “collections”=”art.”