Museum deaccessions as portrayed in the media run the gamut from clearly unethical to pretty fishy. But deaccessioning is part of regular practice in collecting institutions. Our responsibility is to steward and shape a living collection. Both accessions and deaccessions are governed by an institution’s mission and collecting policy—does the artifact fit our mission? Is it in scope, something we are committed to collecting and telling the story of? Is it in bad condition, a duplicate of something we have in the collection already? Can we take care of the object properly? Museums ask the same questions about collecting new artifacts as we do about deaccessioning.
Since we only see egregious deaccessioning stories, it was nice to see this pleasant one, in an article by A. N. Devers in the Paris Review. The estate of the creepily gothic artist and writer Edward Gorey is run by a trust, which owns Gorey’s artifacts and runs a house museum. The artifacts included Gorey’s collection of fur coats, which he famously wore to the ballet with a pair of canvas sneakers. But later in life (and here’s a good lesson on decoding donor intent!) Gorey stopped wearing his fur coats and became interested in animal welfare, in fact leaving his estate to benefit animal charities.
The Trust exhibited one iconic (which is to say, often-drawn) fur coat in their museum, but was keeping the rest in storage at a very high cost. They decided that it would support Gorey’s intentions to deaccession the coats and auction them off, with proceeds to benefit animal welfare charities. (They had been auctioning off one a year.) Now, the Trust has a much more flexible mission than a small museum generally does, but this deaccession seems clearly appropriate for their collections and mission. A writer and Gorey fan, A. N. Devers, went to the auction, and, though the coats were going for a high price to affluent Goreyites, was finally able to buy one of Gorey’s fur coats.
So: a museum determines donor intent, deaccessions collections it can’t properly take care of, sells items in a mission-appropriate way, and the artifacts end up with new owners that love and appreciate them. Though I wish all (!) artifacts could be in publicly accessible collections, this seems like a fruitful compromise.