Wednesday 28 December 2011

Going, Going, Gone - Museum Disposal

This silk picture along with 15 others, silk painted and embroidered with polychrome silks between 1917 and 1950, is about to disappear. It is on the disposal list of the Fashion Museum in Bath, UK. It may be, in fact, that it hasn't been seen in some time. In many museum items spend much of their lives in storerooms - there is only room to display about 1% of museum holdings at any one time, so even with a prodigious effort on the museum's part to achieve annual rotation, you would have to live to be around 100 before you got to see all that your museum curates in the normal displays.
The Museum Association in the UK states: Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society.
And there are guidelines concerning ethical disposal which is characterized as being when it is:
within the framework of a clearly defined collections policy
• on the advice of a range of staff (not an individual) and is agreed by the governing body
• done with the intention that wherever possible items remain within the public domain
• unlikely to damage public trust in museums
• likely to increase the public benefit derived from museum collections
• communicated openly to stakeholders and the public.
Justifiable reasons for disposal are: duplicated items; underused items; items that the museum cannot adequately care for; items damaged or deteriorated beyond the museum's ability to repair; unprovenanced or uncontextualized items; items that are a risk to health and safety.
Only recently, in 2007, was the Code of Ethics amended to accept financially motivated disposal in exceptional circumstances, when it can be demonstrated that: significant long-term public benefit will be derived from the remaining collection; it is simply not to meet budget deficit, nor is it a last resort when other sources of funding have been explored and sector bodies have been consulted; the item is outside the museum's core collection as defined in  the collections policy. As an additional safeguard any money raised as a result of disposal must be used to benefit the museum's collection, in particular it must be restricted to long-term sustainability, use and development of the collection. For more information you can download the Museum Association's Policy Document and also the detailed Code of Ethics.
It is interesting that with the best will in the world, policies created by a single stakeholder tend to be focused around and led by that same stakeholder. I remember once going to a Chinese restaurant for a New Year's meal. We were to choose a variety of plates amongst ourselves to share, and I still remember one strident voice above all others declaring: We can't have everyone deciding. Maybe that is right? Or is it?


  1. This is such an important issue. I worry about how extant items will have decayed, in spite of conversation methods, in a few hundred more years. Slowly becoming more and more fragile, black dye eating the material, and not to mention those dratted Victorian conservation methods! We need to learn from them while they are still around!
    Speaking of which, do you know of any good articles of Victorian methods of embroidery conservation? I've read of curators "undoing" the work many times, but never read of what the Victorians actually did.

  2. Is it just me, or does it seem to you that the first thing museums sell off or get rid of are textile collections?