Tag Archives: Deaccessioning

A Realistic Deaccession Discussion

Broadly speaking, most deaccession controversies (the ones where a museum announces it’s selling collections to pay for non-collections things) go like this:

1. The museum realizes it is going or is broke. In lieu of finding new revenues it decides to sell collections.

2. The museum publicly announces it’s deaccession plans, shocking and angering the rest of the field (but usually no one else).

3. The field demands that those responsible for the financial failures and/or the deaccession proposal be brought forth and punished.

4. The American Association of Museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors, or the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries write strongly-worded letters or speeches admonishing the offending museum not to do it. They write the same thing each time, just changing the proper nouns.

There is no set #5, as the outcome can vary – the museum might halt the deaccession altogether, a donor might generously meet the shortfall (for this year anyway), or they might go ahead and sell, the field be damned. Except in rare instances mentioned below, in no way is the outcome based on anything other than what is financially beneficial for the museum. As we’ve said before, hope and strongly-worded letters are really all the museum field has in these situations.

But lately there has been a call for what amounts to a new #4 on our list. Some museum professionals are clamoring for the AAM, et al, to push and the Federal government to pass national laws protecting collections and punishing offending museums. This sounds like a fine idea.

The problem is it’s a dumb idea.

There are already laws in place to protect collections. They are created and governed by each state because museum collections are held in public trust for the residents of whichever state the museum is registered in. Idealistically we like to say we hold these collections for all of humanity, but legally we’re only beholden to our home state. While the strength and effectiveness of each state’s law is debatable, they are all overseen by each state’s attorney general, who is vested with the legal power to stop deaccessions if warranted. So there is a process already ready.

With that in mind, we here at the American Hysterical Society would like to offer a new, more utilitarian approach to deaccession governance. One that would give the AAM, and their like, real teeth.

As opposed to what they have now.

As opposed to what they have now.

Since the AAM (or the AAMD or the AAMG or whoever) have members in every state of the union, when a deaccession proposal is made which the field disagrees with they should direct (cajole, really) their in-state members to file a class action lawsuit against the offending museum with that state’s attorney general. In doing so they would bring existing laws to bear, put real pressure on the offending museum, and bring the field a little closer together by shunning one of their own, all without the fun of enacting new legislation or recreating the AAM, yet again.

It’s either this or we finally accept that the field’s “ethics” are in reality unenforceable best practices and that our national museum leadership consists of hall monitors, not field generals.

If you like this suggestion, you might like our proposal to more effectively fund museums.


Deacessioning, n. A publicity stunt whereby a museum announces how destitute of money and ethics it is. Although intended to help stabilize the organization’s finances, it often raises more drama than money.

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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