Museums, values & deaccession

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The deaccession of museum objects is a sensitive and disputable subject in the Netherlands. In recent years deaccession has become a fiercely discussed subject by museum directors, other professionals, the government, the media and the Dutch inhabitants. When a museum director, for instance, decides to deaccession objects from the collection he or she is usually confronted with the many different opinions from these parties. The conversation about deaccessioning museum objects is therefore characterized by paradoxes, contradictory visions and conflicting ideas. On the one hand deaccession is rejected for undermining the important task of museums to preserve and safeguard our cultural heritage (Bergevoet et al. 2006:53-55). It is feared to be a tool that is sensitive to fashion and lacks vision in the long run. A new museum director could decide to go with 20th century painters and deaccession the whole collection of paintings from the Middle Ages (Ott, 2007:43). According to certain people deaccessioning also means the loss of objects collected by former donators and the loss of objects funded by the Dutch taxpayer. Deaccession questions our faith in museums and the consequences of their decision-making (Bergevoet et al. 2006:53-55).

On the other hand, deaccession is accepted as a tool to create a qualitatively high and coherent collection. It is argued that objects of inferior quality or lack of consistency should not be in a museum collection (Bergevoet et al. 2006:53-55). Deaccessioning is also needed to make sure that our cultural heritage is exposed to the public, instead of being wasted in museum depots (Bergevoet et al. 2006:53-55). At the same time deaccession is sometimes needed to lessen the burdens of preservation. Large voluminous objects ask for a lot of space, a thing that most museums lack (Bergevoet et al. 2006:53-55).
All these different visions are based on the appreciation of different values. Everything we say and do derives from the values we have (Klamer, 2006:38). The conversation about the deaccession of museum objects is therefore a conversation about values. While some museum directors emphasize the preservation of our cultural heritage for future generations and the importance of providing access to art and culture for everyone, other museum directors find themselves more inclined to the quality of their collections and the relevance and esthetics of the objects. So, while for some museum directors social values dominate the conversation about deaccessioning, for other museum directors cultural values are much more important. Many museum directors still find themselves in the process of thinking about deaccession and determining what they value the most.
Remarkable, and at the same time interesting, is the, at first sight, absence of economic values in the conversation about deaccessioning. While in most parts of our society economic values, like money, seem to be the ultimate goals in life, in this conversation economic values are not mentioned a lot (Klamer, 2006:38). Neither in the literature on museums, in the articles about deaccession and in the newspapers, nor in the ethical codes and guidelines for museums, is there written much about the managerial and financial side of deaccession.

Does this mean that museum directors are not inclined to economic values at all?

Well, think about the deaccession of museum objects… and everybody will quickly realize that the selling of museum objects is directly connected with the generation of money. So, are museum directors not tempted by the fact that the revenue from deaccession could provide the opportunity of acquiring some new piece for the collection?

Deaccession does also improve the amount of space in the depot and it lowers the costs of preservation. Nevertheless little is written about this in the literature on deaccession and in the Dutch guidelines for museums. Is the efficient use of means of no interest to museum directors? This seems unrealistic, as museums, among other cultural organizations, have limited financial means and the economic crisis might not predict a bright future either.

Officially the role of economic values in deaccession is not acknowledged and even rejected (LAMO 2006). Because so little is written about the economic values you would think that economic values are not at stake in the conversation about deaccessioning museum objects. Nevertheless, I am rather suspicious about this. Could it be different in reality? Are economic values really absent or are these simply hidden to preserve the sacred character of museums and their art (Abbing, 2002)? Are economic values important?
These observations and questions form the starting point for a, hopefully, interesting master thesis about museums, values and the deaccession of museum objects.
3.1 Research Question

  • Which values dominate the conversation about deaccession inside the museum walls: economic values, social values or cultural values?

    • Do economic values play a role in deaccession?

3.2 Method

To answer this research question I will start with a research of the literature.

It is important to gain a good insight into the theories about social, cultural and economic values. Chapter 4 offers a framework to analyse and understand the different values. Chapter 5 looks at the social, cultural and economic values inside the art world. It is explored which values play a role concerning works of art, artists and art institutions.

Since the aim is to explore the role of these values in the conversation about the deaccession of museum objects, we also have to explore the literature on the history and role of museums, museum collecting, collection management and deaccession. This is covered in chapter 6.

The second part of this master thesis, which starts at chapter 7, exists of a research more orientated to daily reality. To find out how the museum field thinks about deaccession an empirical research is necessary. In this case the opinions and visions of museum directors are of most interest. The director of a museum has knowledge about the social, the cultural and the business side of the museum. The director has an overview of the mission, vision and values of the museum and of the collection, the collection management, deaccession and the reasons behind deaccession.
Therefore the empirical research is aimed at exploring which values influence the opinions and visions of museum directors. In order to see which values are of importance the qualitative interview method will be used. Qualitative interviews provide the opportunity to collect first hand information and, more importantly, to experience the conversation about deaccession. The importance of this last aspect is further explained under the heading of ‘Discourse Analysis’.
To conduct the actual research several museums and their museum directors have to be selected. For the research it is most interesting to interview directors of different museums, to see how these different museums look at deaccessioning. This master thesis is the first research into the value discourse of deaccessioning museum objects. There is no knowledge available yet that confirms that certain types of museums have particular values concerning deaccessioning that are different from the values in other museums. A research by Bevers and Halbertsma states that the collection of a museum is determining for its collection management. Art museums, for instance, with collections of unique artworks are less in favour of deaccessioning (Bevers & Halbertsma, 1991:17-18). This, however, does not prove that the values in these art museums differ from the values in other museums. It is therefore necessary, and of course interesting at the same time, to look at a broad range of museums.
Which museums should these be? Museums can be categorized in different ways. For the conversation about deaccession different aspects might be influential, like the collection of the museum, the size of the museum, the functions of the museum, the finances of the museum and the personality of the museum director. This means that the following museums can be distinguished:

- Ethnological museums, historical museums, art museums, natural history museums and science and technique museums (

- Museums with preservation functions, research functions, exhibition functions, education functions or entertainment functions.

- National museums, provincial museums and local museums.

- Mainly subsidized museums, sponsored museums and private or privately funded museums.

- Museums with own collections and museums with collections owned by the government, the province, the municipality or their friends association.

- Museums with collections of multiple artists or themes and museums with a specialized collection of one artist or theme.

- Museums managed by a culturally grounded director and museums run by a more business-orientated director.

Of course there are museums that possess several of the above aspects and therefore can be found in more than one category. Nevertheless, most museums have one aspect that is most characteristic and which makes them interesting for the research. But not all museums and their directors suffice for the research. There are two basic requirements:

- The museums and museum directors operate in the Netherlands.

- The museums and museum directors already have (some) experience with deaccessioning museum objects or do think about it. For this requirement the book ‘Nothing gets lost – twenty years of selection and deaccession in Dutch museum collections’ (Niets gaat Verloren – twintig jaar selectie en afstoting uit Nederlandse museale collecties) written by T. Gubbels, A. Kok and P. Timmer is used. This book describes the most important deaccession cases in the last 20 years in the Netherlands. The cases relate to a variety of museums and the use of a variety of social, cultural and economic arguments. Some cases have led to fierce discussions, as financial arguments were the starting point of the deaccession.
According to the selection criteria and requirements above, five museums have been selected for the qualitative research. Only five museums were chosen because unfortunately the time for this master thesis is restricted. Nevertheless, the museums do show an interesting variety of collections, functions, sizes, financing structures and directors.

The five selected museums are:

  • ‘Museum Het Valkhof’ in Nijmegen. The museum is directed at archeology and ancient art. Deaccession is becoming more and more important. In the policy-plan for 2009-2012 the museum states that its depots have reached the maximum capacity, consequently director Marijke Brouwer is developing a more selective acquisition-policy as well as a careful deaccession-policy (Museum Het Valkhof, 2009:13).

  • ‘Zeeuws maritiem muZEEum’ in Vlissingen. The museum is a local museum with a historical collection. Since 1995, when problems arose about the capacity of the depots, deaccession has become a continuous process in the management of the museum. This goes hand in hand with the more visitor and market orientated developments inside the museum under director Wilbert Weber (Gubbels et al. 2007:117-119). The museum is working hard on its position in the market, showing its local economic value to Vlissingen, attracting more visitors and cooperating with commercial organizations. In 2007 the own income of the museum raised to 52% of the total turnover (Zeeuws maritiem muZEEum, 2007).

  • ‘Frans Hals Museum’ in Haarlem. The museum has a collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century masterpieces, of which the paintings of Frans Hals form the center. The collection is partly owned by the municipality of Haarlem. In 2005/2006 the museum received lots of attention concerning the sale of two paintings for the build of a new depot. Financial reasons made director Karel Schampers decide to propose the sale of these paintings (Gubbels et al. 2007:164-171)

  • ‘Naturalis – Nationaal Historisch Museum’ in Leiden. This is a national museum with a collection directed at nature, earth, biology, life and animals. The emphasis lies on the research and education function ( An interesting question is if this influences their vision on deaccession?

  • ‘Museum Beelden aan Zee’ in Scheveningen. This museum originated in 1994 from the private collection of the collectors Theo and Lida Scholten. The museum is a privately funded institution, organized by volunteers and structurally supported by a friends association ( The museum has a collection of almost 1000 modern and contemporary international sculptures.

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