Governing From Within

In response to the New York Regent’s recently adopted deaccession rules the American Association of Museums (AAM) issued the following statement:

AAM would prefer these important standards be enforced by the professionals in the field…

The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) concurred saying:

We believe that such issues are best handled through professional associations like AAMD or AAM, rather than through legislation.

Although rarely noted, it is true that the AAM and AAMD have several available options to help keep museums and museum professionals on the straight and narrow. Their work is evident. Thanks to them it’s not as if anyone with a collection of things (or not), a tax-exempt status (or not), and some start-up cash (or not) can create and operate a museum.

So what can the AAM and AAMD as the legislating bodies for American museums do about the mounting deaccessioning debacle? They can:

  • Hope – our first, last, and best recourse in all such matters. Perhaps the offending museum (OM) will come to their senses
  • Direct Contact – the director of AAM or AADM should call OM’s director and quietly suggest that this will make the whole field look foolish and only hurts our (that is AAM’s) ability to successfully lobby
  • Negative Press – go on record with the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Peoria Journal Star about the OM’s actions. As history has shown, such national publicity will almost certainly stop them
  • Peer Pressure – Remind the OM that the rest of the field believes they have brought shame and disgrace on themselves and their institutions. Ignore the OM director’s response that closing for good would be worse.
  • Social Media – Use all available social media outlets to publish the guidelines or position paper which applies to the immediate situation (make sure to do so without mentioning the offending institution by name)
  • Revoke Accreditation – Threaten to revoke their accreditation, thus disabling the museum from pursuing its mission, fundraising activities, and public programs (If not accredited, mention this will hurt their chances to become accredited should they ever get around to completing the paperwork)
  • Blacklist – A museum staffer could be blacklisted from ever working in the field again. Or at least until the story blows over and is forgotten
  • Sanctions – the AAMD include this in its deaccession policy. If the OM elects to ignore the AAMD’s policy they may censure, withhold loans, and expel the OM from membership (thus saving the OM membership fees and reducing the need to deaccession collections – the AAM has no such penalties because they need the money)
  • Hope – see above

Of course this only addresses wayward professional staff, and not board members. It will be interesting to hear what the Museum Trustees Association says about all of this. Since museum boards are rarely, if ever, complicit or even directly responsible for unethical deaccessioning proposals, it’s unlikely to be much.

Like so many of our for-profit counterparts, such as the Auto and Airline industries, museums don’t need government legislation to help us manage our institutions or our money. The AAM and AAMD are perfectly capable of creating guidelines which they can strive to persuade us into following. Honestly, what can a state government do that a national lobbying organization can’t do better?

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About T.H. Gray

T.H. Gray is the self-appointed court jester and Dr. Demento for the history museum field. A lifelong museum professional and reenactor, he is a graduate of the prestigious Peale-Barnum Public History Museum Studies Program. Until 2011, when the AHS hired him away, he was on staff at the Benjamin Dover Memorial Museum & Swimming Pool ("Our History is All Wet!"). He remembers when museums were still about history, science, and art. BTW, all of these posts say they are by T.H. Gray because he can't turn off the byline. Credit, when due, is given. View all posts by T.H. Gray

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