Anthropology Deaccessioning
by
Michele Piazzai, Marilena Vecco
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0246

Introduction

Deaccessioning is the technical term referring to the expulsion of objects from museum collections. This would be considered an ordinary aspect of museum administration if museums did not play a crucial role in the conservation of cultural heritage. Both linguistically and factually, deaccessioning represents the undoing of accessioning operations, by which objects newly acquired by museums are inscribed into museum registers. Because the act of accessioning constitutes a conferral of status, an expert acknowledgment that the object is worthy of preservation, deaccessioning comes to represent the revocation of this status; that is, it entails the object’s return to the mundane sphere. Deaccessioning usually occurs with the intent of selling the object. The practice first came into the spotlight on 27 February 1972, when in a New York Times article titled “Very Quiet and Very Dangerous,” the art critic and historian Joan Canaday denounced the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s rumored sale of many prominent artworks earlier that year, including two Manets, a Cézanne, a Renoir, a Gauguin, and a Picasso, questioning the operation on both ethical and financial grounds. The episode became widely known as the “Hoving affair,” from the name of then-director of the Metropolitan Museum, Thomas Hoving, and left a stigma about the practice of selling artworks from museum collections. Since then, deaccessioning has remained an uncomfortable aspect of museum administration, considered by some a legitimate curatorial tool, by others a necessary evil in times of financial stress, and by still others a mark of museum managers’ betrayal of the public trust. To this day, deaccessioning continues to be discussed primarily in relation to art museums and the sale of artworks; however, the term rightfully applies to non-artistic objects, such as books, archival records, or archaeological items, and it does not strictly refer to objects’ sales but more generally to their disposals. Therefore, it also applies to cases where the objects are expelled from collections because of loss, damage, donation, restitution, or repatriation. Deaccessioning can occur for reasons that appear easily defensible. It may occur, for example, because new legislation forces a change of ownership, or because the museum cannot properly care for the object. Nevertheless, it often occurs for dubious reasons, perhaps because the item is considered redundant, uninteresting, or commercially valuable. This bibliography entry draws on interdisciplinary literature to review common arguments both in favor and against deaccessioning. It begins with legal considerations, because the legal profession was the first to develop scholarly interest in this practice, and was later followed by the fields of economics and management. After introducing selected literature from these fields, this entry introduces key sources on deaccessioning policy, representative case studies, and publications oriented toward students and practitioners.

Deaccessioning in Legal Literature

Compatibly with the intuition that public museums are stewards of public goods, legal studies on deaccessioning focus on problems related to the maintenance of public trust. In common law countries, this leads to discussing possible violations of fiduciary duty, as discussed in Chen 2009. There is consensus in the literature that fiduciary duty is preserved when proceeds from deaccessioning are used strictly to fund new acquisitions, but questions arise when they are used for any other purpose. It is in this vein that White 1995 asks the most controversial question of the deaccessioning debate: Should museums also be allowed to use deaccessioning to cover operating expenses? The author argues that this is desirable, as museums must learn to cope with financial hardship. This argument is echoed by Cirigliana 2011, written in the wake of the global financial crisis that left most public museums severely underfunded. Ulph 2015 argues that deaccessioning preserves fiduciary duty as long as the item stays in public collections, and that violations arise when items are lost to the private sphere. For this reason, many argue that public collections should be granted preemptive rights to buy deaccessioned objects (see, e.g., Fincham 2011). Stephens 2011 proposes additional rules to ensure the maintenance of public trust, including formal authorizations by museum directors and annual reporting to governments. It is generally agreed that barriers to deaccessioning should be lower in particular cases, including when an item is deaccessioned for the purpose of repatriation (Palmer 2001), or when it is a loan whose owner can no longer be identified (Ulph 2017). Manisty and Smith 2010 propose looser restrictions also when the item is not considered part of a museum’s core collection, as defined by the museum’s acquisition policy. Beyond public trust, deaccessioning also affects museums’ legal responsibility toward their donors, who normally place restrictions on the uses museums can make of their gifts and bequests. Among the most common restrictions is that ownership of the donated items be retained by the museum in perpetuity. This places a burden on museums, especially because they may have to accept items they do not want as a price for those they wish to acquire. Museums are hence said to bow to the “dead hand,” granting donors control of donated items even after their death. This is so troublesome that Malaro 1988 argues gifts should never be accepted by museums under the clause of perpetual retention.

  • Chen, Sue. 2009. Art deaccessions and the limits of fiduciary duty. Art Antiquity and Law 14.2: 103–142.

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    The article provides an introduction to the principle of fiduciary duty, an important legal standard to which museum managers are bound in common law countries. It highlights a key limitation of fiduciary law; namely, that it requires deaccessioning to follow established procedures, but it cannot evaluate deaccessioning operations on the basis of their merit.

  • Cirigliana, Jorja A. 2011. Let them sell art: Why a broader deaccession policy today could save museums tomorrow. Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal 20.2: 365–393.

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    Against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis, this article calls for reforms that allow museums to sell objects in their collections based on financial necessity, and to use these proceeds to cover operating costs. The author remarks that while deaccessioning is seen by some as a “dirty word,” the words “permanent closure” are much more alarming. Indeed, museums cannot serve the public interest if they are bankrupt.

  • Fincham, Derek. 2011. Deaccession of art from the public trust. Art Antiquity and Law 16.2: 1–37.

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    In the United States, museums are legally bound to use any income gained by deaccessioning objects in public collections only for the purpose of new acquisitions. The author proposes three reforms to ensure deaccessioning occurs in accord with the public interest: lifting the restriction that proceeds can be used only for new acquisitions, granting other public collections preemptive rights to purchase the objects, and forcing museums to publicly motivate their decisions.

  • Malaro, Marie C. 1988. Restricted gifts and museum responsibilities. Journal of Arts Management and Law 18.3: 41–77.

    DOI: 10.1080/07335113.1988.9942433E-mail Citation »

    Whenever a museum accepts bequests with the condition that donated items be permanently retained, it implicitly accepts that the deceased donor remain forever in control of the items. Examining specifically the relation between museums and donors, this article expounds the legal and practical reasons why museums may find it preferable to reject bequests that come with provisions restricting deaccessions.

  • Manisty, Edward, and Julian Smith. 2010. The deaccessioning of objects from public institutions: Legal and related considerations. Art Antiquity and Law 15.1: 1–74.

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    Following an important reform in the Museum Association’s Code of Ethics, this article addresses UK law on deaccessioning by focusing on the blurry distinction between items in a museum’s core collection and those outside it. It proposes a framework whereby different weights are placed on items within and outside the core collection, and argues that legal restrictions should be relaxed for objects that lie outside.

  • Palmer, Norman. 2001. Repatriation and deaccessioning of cultural property: Reflections on the resolution of art disputes. Current Legal Problems 54.1: 477–532.

    DOI: 10.1093/clp/54.1.477E-mail Citation »

    The author looks at return and repatriation requests, explaining why they threaten the very concept of museums. At the same time, the author explains why it is increasingly important to honor these requests. It is argued that museums should revise their traditional standards so as to ensure compliance with ethical expectations, which involves being open to the restitution of items.

  • Stephens, Heather H. 2011. All in a day’s work: How museums may approach deaccessioning as a necessary collections management tool. DePaul Journal of Art, Technology, and Intellectual Property Law 22.1: 119–181.

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    Reviewing different ethical codes, museum statutes, and case law, the author details conditions where deaccessioning may be considered appropriate for museum collections. Formal requirements are proposed for who may authorize deaccessioning, namely an official of the same or higher rank as the one authorizing acquisitions. The author also argues in favor of compliance with fiduciary duty and supports annual reporting procedures.

  • Ulph, Janet. 2015. Dealing with UK museum collections: Law, ethics, and the public/private divide. International Journal of Cultural Property 22.2–3: 177–204.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0940739115000168E-mail Citation »

    There is an expectation among the UK public that museums always retain donated objects, preventing them from being lost to private collections. Yet as the current legal framework trends toward the commodification of collections, many ask museums to raise funds through sales at auction, which could result in items disappearing into private collections. The author calls for law reforms to ensure that UK museums continue to maintain public trust.

  • Ulph, Janet. 2017. Frozen in time: Orphans and uncollected objects in museum collections. International Journal of Cultural Property 24.1: 3–30.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0940739116000345E-mail Citation »

    Addressing specifically the case of objects whose owners are uncertain, unknown, or untraceable, the author argues that UK law gives museums little choice but to retain these items in perpetuity. In some cases, museums may not even be allowed to transfer them to off-site facilities in order to save space in their main building. This prevents museums from managing collections in a balanced way and to the public’s benefit.

  • White, Jennifer L. 1995. When it’s OK to sell the Monet: A trustee-fiduciary-duty framework for analyzing the deaccessioning of art to meet museum operating expenses. Michigan Law Review 94.4: 1041–1066.

    DOI: 10.2307/1289805E-mail Citation »

    In the United States, financial hardship prompts museum managers to sell items not governed by donor restrictions, but whether proceeds from these sales should be used only for the purpose of new acquisition remains legally clear. The author argues that museum directors should be allowed to use proceeds for purposes other than new acquisitions as long as they comply with fiduciary duty.

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