This weekend the Cleveland Plain Dealer had a long article about the Western Reserve Historical Society’s systematic selling of collections to pay off debt.  Please go read the article right now.

While the current recession has hit museums, nonprofits and others especially hard and has them scrambling to survive, the society has long used its collection as a means to raise cash, something others find astounding.

The Western Reserve is not an accredited member of the American Association of Museums, unlike Ohio’s two other major history organizations, the Ohio Historical Society and the Cincinnati History Museum. Western Reserve had been a member for 20 plus years, but the membership lapsed in 1998.

Davis said the association is more appropriate for art and science museums and said they were members of a living history association.

But the AAM, established in 1906, represents 3,000 institutions that include, art, history, science, military and youth museums and others. It sets standards and best practices for museums, including for sales of museum collections, called de-accessions.

While many history museums routinely sell off collections that are duplicates or don’t meet their missions, accredited museums set aside the proceeds to buy new artifacts or care for the ones they have.

“It seems counterintuitive, whether art, history or science museum . . . that you’re going broke and you can’t sell,” said Ford Bell, American Association of Museums president. “The reason that policy exists is once they start to fund operations [by selling artifacts] the collections become assets and not collections.”

Bell said this standard has created and kept safe some of the greatest museums in the world, even though tough “awful economies of the past.”

At Western Reserve, the sale of many items such as guns, Indian artifacts and furniture have been kept private and quiet. The society refuses to say what is being sold or even how much the sales earn.

On the society’s tax forms that nonprofits must fill out, it reported $1.18 million in artifacts sold from October 2007 through June 2008. From October 2006 through September 2007, it reported asset sales of $2.1 million.

In the last several years, there have been a number of scandals in the art museum world about museums (the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis, for instance) selling or proposing to sell off collections to address financial crises.  Critics wondered why museum people were so up in arms about the ethics of deaccessioning for profit.

The WRHS shows us some consequences of treating museum collections as assets, rather than, as is our mission and responsibility, objects held in trust for the public.  Lack of trust among donors, the public, and the profession.  Lack of accreditation.  The secrecy about their deaccessioning process, what items are chosen and how, what money was made from each item, only exacerbates the problem.  As a counterexample, see the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s deaccession database, which notes where each piece was sold and for what amount:  that’s radical transparency.

The museum community upholds ethics rules around collections deaccessioning not to be punitive or prudish, but to protect our collective cultural heritage and to keep museums as a third place, one that facilitates social encounters with historical objects and stories and is insulated from the market.  Our visitors and our donors deserve institutions that serve them.  This is a tough economy for everyone, but without our ethics we cease to be museums.