Museums, values & deaccession



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Museums: Deaccession

Deaccession of museum objects can be explained as the ‘donation, exchange, sale or destruction of objects from the collection’ (Bergevoet et al. 2006:17). As noted before, in this master thesis the term ‘deaccession’ will only be used to refer to the selling of objects from the collections of museums.


Deaccessioning museum objects is a topic that is of importance in the Dutch museum field ever since 1873 (Gubbels et al. 2007:21). In this year the politician Victor de Stuers pointed at the sale of an object in baroque-style from the ‘Sint Janskathedraal’ in Den Bosch. De Stuers came across the object in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and was amazed by the shortsightedness of the deaccession. Apparently he saw the sale as a loss for the Netherlands (Gubbels et al. 2007:21).

Since this incident many opinions and visions have been formed concerning the deaccession of museum objects. Times of indifference and large-scale deaccession have been interchanged with times in which deaccession was absolutely not accepted. Arguments for and against deaccession have changed and different points of view have been emphasized.


To find out which values are important in the conversation about deaccession it is therefore of importance to take a look at the history of the conversation. The conversation about deaccessioning museum objects originates from the conversation about the functions of museums and especially the discussions that evolved from that about the management of museum collections. Which values play a role in these conversations?
6.1 The Functions of Museums

‘A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment’ (www.icom.html).

This definition of museums, defined by the International Council of Museums, constitutes all possible functions of museums.
The most important task for museums is the preservation of our cultural heritage. This can be divided in the acquisition of objects and the conservation of these objects (O’Hagan, 1998:197-198). The emphasis on the preservation of cultural heritage in the Netherlands developed in 1883.

Before 1883, under king Willem II, the economic situation of the Netherlands was unfortunate and the Netherlands had not yet become an unified nation state. In this climate the statesman Thorbecke was able to restrict the responsibilities of the government. No money or other support was given to the arts and culture anymore. This indifference caused the disappearance of many important Dutch artworks to foreign countries, where these artworks now have honorable positions in the larger influential museums (Bergvelt, 2005:111-115).

Fortunately in 1883 the privately run ‘Vereniging Rembrandt’ was established in order to keep Dutch art objects, drawings and paintings inside the country (Bergvelt, 2005:115). The association was the first to point at the importance of cultural heritage for the Dutch society. It then became the most important task of museums to acquire and conserve the Dutch cultural heritage for social purposes.
Strongly linked to this function is the research function of museums. Research involves the study of collections by the museum itself or scholars, the uncovering of information that is relevant to understand the objects, the recording of information that is relevant to the collection and the making of catalogues (O’Hagan, 1998:198). This research function was until the 1970s one of the most important functions of the museum. Till then the most common definition of the museum, developed by D. Murray in 1904, was ‘a collection of antiques or of other objects interesting to the scholar and the man of science, analysed and displayed with scientific method’ (Schubert, 2000:56). Today the research function is a necessary component for two other tasks of the museum: exhibition and education.
An important task of a museum is to make our cultural heritage accessible for the general public. ‘If a museum does not provide space where the contents of the museum can be displayed and exhibited, it would render meaningless the functions of acquisition, preservation [and] research [..]’ (O’Hagan, 1998:198).

Cultural heritage should be seen, as it brings manifold benefits according to Lowenthal: ‘it links us with ancestors and offspring, bonds neighbours and patriots, certifies identity [and] roots us in time-honored ways’ (Lowenthal, 2006:xiii). Cultural heritage tells us who we are, where we came from and to what we belong (Lowenthal, 2006:xvii).‘To share a legacy is to belong to a family, a community, a race, a nation. What each inherits is in some measure unique, but common commitments bind us to others within our group. Inheritors are fellow countrymen’ (Lowenthal, 2006:2).

These are, among others, reasons for the Dutch government to provide many museums with subsidies to accomplish their goal of preserving and especially exhibiting our cultural heritage.
Communicating the importance of our cultural heritage is also one of the tasks that fits into the educational function of museums. Education involves informing children, youth and adults about the collection. This knowledge is provided through story telling and life long learning (Kapteijns, 2002:13). Life long learning means that museums provide people with the opportunity to understand the current society and their place in that society (Kapteijns, 2002:13). It is the mission of most museums to present their cultural heritage in a way that people are able to learn from the past in order to create an even better future. This process of education ‘can be done when people attend the art museum, by way of guide books, guided tours, written and other exhibition-related information, formal classes and so on’ (O’Hagan, 1998:198). It also happens outside the museum walls, for example in schools, to inform the non-attenders (O’Hagan, 1998:198).
Finally, the entertainment function is becoming more and more important in most museums (Kapteijns, 2002:8). Museums have the image of being dull, dusty, scientific and static, while the idea is that going to a museum should be fun and pleasant. Nevertheless, the ‘old’ image of museums prevents people from visiting them. Fortunately today most museums know all about their visitors and non-visitors. They learned that to attract these non-visitors they have to compete with the leisure industry. Entertainment inside the museum walls has therefore become of more importance. It is now all about the museum experience. To provide this experience the presentation of the collection has changed from historical and chronological to presentations with multiple perspectives, ‘amusing’ tools and room for interaction (Gubbels, 2004:4).

‘It is clear then that a museum does not simply perform a single function, but is best viewed as a complex institution which performs many separate but closely interrelated functions’ (O’Hagan, 1998:199). Not all museums are willing and able to fulfill all these different functions. Some museums emphasize their preservation functions, while others emphasize their research, exhibition, education or entertainment functions.


Nevertheless, all museums are there for society and all their functions are directed at generating social and cultural values. Already in the definition of a museum it becomes clear that we expect museums to generate social values and cultural values. The functions of museums are directed at society. As a public place it is the role of museums to educate, inspire and amaze, and to offer a cultural experience.

In order to generate these social and cultural values the collection of a museum forms the starting point. The acquisition and conservation of the objects ‘is primary in that it provides the core material for a museum, namely its contents’ (O’Hagan, 1998:197). ‘All other functions are dependent on it, since there can be no conservation, study/research, interpretation/education or exhibition without collections’ (O’Hagan, 1998:197). Therefore, a museum is all about its collection and the quality of that collection (Bevers & Halbertsma, 1991:8). The collection enables a museum to fulfil its functions and values in society.


Unfortunately the importance of the collection for the generation of social and cultural values is accompanied by many problems, difficulties and challenges. The social and cultural values that museums want to portray, put a pressure on the acquisition, conservation, management and deaccession of the collection. Can museum be solely directed at social and cultural values?
6.2 Collection Management

Most museums in the Netherlands are formed out of the collections of rich private collectors, the Dutch stadtholders and members of the Royal House. Since the seventeenth century people from the upper classes began to collect interesting artefacts from their journeys abroad. These objects were preserved in their houses in the form of small collections of curiosities and later on as ‘little art galleries’ in special rooms (Van der Laarse, 2005:71). Many objects that can be admired in museums today have been preserved as memento in these private collections (Van der Laarse, 2005:60-61).

In the meanwhile inside the museum walls these collections have expanded rapidly due to the preservation, research, exhibition, education and entertainment functions of museums. Especially the notion of the preservation of cultural heritage has lead to the growth of collections.

Unfortunately, by appointing the preservation of cultural heritage to museums as their primary task, the problem arose that too much was preserved. The growth of collections seemed to be endless, because: what is cultural heritage? In all those years of preserving everything it became unclear what we meant exactly by cultural heritage and I wonder if we do know now. ‘Formerly about the grand monuments, unique treasures, and great heroes, heritage now also touts the typical and evokes the vernacular’ (Lowenthal, 2006:14). Next to the great masters and meaningful ethnological objects, we can find baseball cards and cloths from celebrities. The cultural heritage that is preserved does not even have to be from the past anymore. ‘Once confined to a distant past [..] heritage now spreads into yesterday’ (Lowenthal, 2006:17).


In the 1950s and 1960s this emphasis on preservation of cultural heritage and the fear of losing valuable objects led to a discussion about the endlessly growing collections and the controllability of these collections. Preserving everything became questionable. What, for instance, was the surplus value of preserving everything? Many collections were presented in historical and chronological order. According to this presentation-style every gap in the collection had to be filled (Hermans et al. 2008:22). But it was not considered if this ‘filling of the gaps’ was providing any surplus value to the total collection.

Our collecting mania caused a lack of selection (Hermans et al. 2008:22). There were no clear visions on what was important to preserve and what was not. Museums were preoccupied with their social and cultural values and forgot to watch the controllability of their collections.

This also led to problematic situations concerning the conservation. In 1987/1988 the Dutch government gave the ‘Common Audit Office’ (Algemene Rekenkamer) instructions to look into all the national museums, to see if they performed all of their tasks well enough to be privatized (Gubbels et al. 2007:8). The conclusions of the ‘Common Audit Office’ were alarming. The report pointed at the enormous arrears in the physical and administrative management of the collections of all the national museums (Van Mensch, 2008:57). The preservation of the collections was severely threatened by insufficient registration, lack of selection and scarce resources for conservation (Gubbels et al. 2008:8).
Fortunately, today most museums have a clear written down vision on what they want to collect and acquire. The collection is linked with the mission of the museum. All new acquisitions are selected according to this mission (Bevers & Halbertsma, 1991:22-23). The generation of social and cultural values is still of utmost importance, but museums have realized that preserving everything is not the way to achieve these values. In this perspective deaccession of museum objects has become a tool to keep collections manageable, controllable and qualitatively strong.

It took, however, a long time before we came this far. Since the discussions in the 1950s and 1960s there have been numerous attempts to find a balance between the generation of social and cultural values and the controllability of a collection. Multiple visions on collection management have been provided and various tools to accomplish a sustainable and controllable collection have been developed. Deaccession was one of these tools, but it was not accepted until 1999/2000 (Gubbels et al. 2007:103-104).


6.3 Deaccession

So, from the 1950s and 1960s on deaccession was offered as a collection management tool. Museums used it, but not in the open. Deaccession was not rejected, but neither was it really accepted. There simply were no clear ideas and opinions about it (Gubbels et al. 2007:21).


Since 1987, however, deaccession became a disputable topic. The attempted deaccession of the painting ‘Composition with two lines’ (Compositie met twee lijnen) of Piet Mondriaan by the municipality of Hilversum turned deaccession into a fierce subject of discussion. The painting of Mondriaan was perceived as Dutch cultural heritage that should not leave the country or end up in the hands of a private collector, especially because it was a special gift from the ‘Nederlandsch Kunstverbond’ (Van Mensch, 2008:58). Deaccession was not accepted because it would mean a loss for the Netherlands. Besides that the reason of the municipality of Hilversum to deaccession the work was experienced as unacceptable too. Hilversum wanted to use the return of the sale for the renovation of a cultural centre in Hilversum. The painting would be deaccessioned to solve financial problems.

This evoked all kind of reactions. The proposal of selling the painting to the highest bidder (about 30 million guilders) was rejected by the government (‘Koninklijk Besluit’). Nevertheless, other visions were expressed also (Gubbels et al. 2007:22). For economists ‘[t]he Mondriaan was saved for Holland at the price of a new cultural centre for Hilversum and the lost opportunity to experience Dutch pride while viewing the ‘Composition with two lines’ in the Paul Getty Museum or some other well-endowed foreign museum. It is the price of cultural heritage. The irony can’t escape anyone even a little economically minded’ (Klamer, 1996:19).


Since this incident culturalists and economists have written many articles about deaccessioning museum objects in newspapers, specialist journals and scientific journals.

Two years later, however, a similar case was at stake and the discussion started again.

In 1989 Rudi Fuchs, director of ‘Gemeentemuseum Den Haag’, proposed the sale of three paintings from the collection to form an acquisition-fund. According to him these three paintings, two Picasso’s and a Monet, didn’t fit in the collection anymore and could better be used to buy new works of art. Many people, however, had doubts about the motives of Fuchs. Fuchs was one of the museum directors that had been radically against the deaccession of the Mondriaan painting in 1987, but now he came with a similar proposal.

Were the two Picasso’s and the Monet really of no importance? Or was Fuchs only interested in acquiring some other work of art? The ‘Dutch Museum Association’ (Nederlandse Museum Vereniging) and the general public decided to block Fuchs’ plans in order to prevent again the loss of three important paintings for the Netherlands (Gubbels et al. 2007:22).


These two cases clearly show how museums are pointed at their social and cultural values. Museums are the preservers of our cultural heritage and the educators of the general public. Financial reasons should not interfere in these important functions.

This explicit rejection of economic values was new. Before 1987, when deaccession was not practiced in public, financial reasons for deaccession did occur. Between 1956 and 1975 the ‘Gemeentemuseum Den Haag’ sold more than 100 paintings to national and international art dealers for financial reasons. The ‘Zeeuws Museum’ also announced to sell several paintings in 1984 for the same reasons. Hendrik Driessen of the ‘Van Abbemuseum’ stated in 1986 that he considered selling some of the works from the museum if the municipality would not raise its acquisition-budget. Sale would be necessary to keep the collection interesting (Van Mensch, 2008:58).


After the two cases above, however, a taboo on deaccession for financial reasons emerged. Economic values were not accepted and this was enhanced by one of the first governmental notes ‘Choosing for Quality: policy-note about the accessibility and the preservation of museum heritage’ (Kiezen voor Kwaliteit: beleidsnota over de toegankelijkheid en het behoud van het museale erfgoed) published in 1990.

For the first time the government addressed the critical revise of collections and the deaccession of objects (Gubbels et al. 2007:22). Deaccession was claimed to be an acceptable management tool, but not in case of financial reasons (Van Mensch, 2008:58). The note is the first official document that states that deaccession should not serve for covering deficits or acquiring other things than new objects. When objects are deaccessioned new objects should be acquired to improve the collection. Acquiring new objects should, however, not be the starting point for the deaccession. Acceptable reasons for deaccession are collection management and improvement of the collection. Central in the whole note is the quality of the museum collections (Ministerie van WVC, 1990:23-25). Social and cultural values should prevail over economic values.

The fundamental ideas of this collection management have been described in the accompanying document ‘Deltaplan for Preservation of Culture’ (Deltaplan voor Cultuurbehoud). This document proposes a categorization of museum objects to make the selection process for acquisition, preservation and deaccession easier. Category A objects have a verification value, linkage value and symbolic value. Category B objects have presentation value, genealogic value, ensemble value and documentation value. Category C objects do not fit the requirements above, but do fit in the mission statement of the museum. These objects can be preserved in the depot, but might also be deaccessioned. Category D objects should not be preserved in the museum. Most of the time they have no cultural value. They might support the presentation, but when this is not the case these objects should be deaccessioned (Bergevoet et al. 2006:59-62).

Note that nothing is said about the economic value of all these objects. The value on the market is not seen as important for the selection of objects and the management of collections.


The same is stated in the ethic code for museums. After the fierce public discussions in 1987 and 1989 the ‘Dutch Museum Association’ (Nederlandse Museumvereniging, NMV) decided to publish a useful guideline for solving ethical issues inside museums. The NMV is an association that tries to unite the expertise and knowledge of over 400 joining museums from the Netherlands (www.nvm.nl). After the difficulties that appeared concerning deaccession they decided to try and help museums with this sensitive subject. Following the ‘International Council of Museums’ (ICOM) they published a guideline on museum ethics in 1991. The ICOM is a similar organization as the NMV, only operating on a larger scale (www.icom.museum). The developed Dutch ‘Code of Ethics for Museums’ (Gedragslijn voor Museale Beroepsethiek) was based on the official document of the ICOM and described, among other things, how museums should deal with deaccession.

The code was renewed in 2006 (Ethische Code voor Musea) and was presented as a series of principles supported by guidelines for desirable professional practice, ethical issues and servitude of the museum towards society (Lingen et al. 2006:3).

The most important guidelines are:

· Museums preserve, interpret and promote the natural and cultural inheritance of humanity: museums are responsible for the safeguarding and the promotion of Dutch cultural heritage and for the employees, material resources and financial resources available for this (Lingen et al. 2006:7).

· Museums that maintain collections hold them in trust for the benefit of society and its development: museums are obligated to acquire, preserve and promote their collections, because their collections consist of important public heritage. Inherent to the public trust museums receive is their role of stewardship, which includes aspiring for rightful ownership of the collection, permanence, documentation, accessibility and responsible deaccession (Lingen et al. 2006:9).

The decision of deaccesioning a certain object is taken under full consideration of the meaning and value of the object, the character of the object (renewable or not), legal matters and possible loss of public trust through this action. In consultation between the board, the director and the curator the object can be deaccessioned, under the condition that the deaccession is fully documented.

The deaccessioned object should be presented for deposit, exchange or sale to other museums first, before entering the market. Museum collections serve public purposes and therefore objects should not be used to make a profit. Received money from deaccession should be used for the collection, preferably for the acquisition of new objects (Lingen et al. 2006:10-11).

· Museums hold primary evidence for establishing and furthering knowledge: museums have a special responsibility for the preservation of primary sources in the collections. Museums conduct research to these sources and share their knowledge with colleagues, scientists and students (Lingen et al. 2006:12-14).

· Museums provide opportunities for the appreciation, understanding and management of the natural and cultural heritage: museums have the task to develop their educational function to reach a broad public from the area they serve. Cooperation with the community and the promotion of cultural heritage is a part of this educational role (Lingen et al. 2006:15).
In the ethic code for museums deaccessioning is also accepted as a collection management tool. There are, however, many things that have to be considered before using deaccession. The code points museums at the fact that under each circumstance they have to keep their primary social and cultural values in mind.
The code for museums was expanded in 1999/2000 with a more practical approach towards deaccessioning: the ‘Dutch Guideline for the Deaccession of Museum Objects’ (Leidraad voor het Afstoten van Museale Objecten, LAMO).

Since the LAMO was first published more and more museums began to deaccession objects in a responsible and well-weighted manner. The first LAMO, however, did not provide enough practical information about deaccession. Therefore the guideline was revised in 2006 and adapted to the new developed insights and experiences with the practice of deaccessioning (Bergevoet et al. 2006:9).

The process of deaccessioning museum objects exists of four different phases. First there is the preparation, which involves being familiar with the ‘Ethic Code for Museums’ and developing a collection-plan. The collection-plan gives insight into the mission and goals of the museum, the composition and quality of the collection, and the policies concerning the collection (Bergevoet et al. 2006:19). It should also be made sure that everything is under control concerning time, financial resources, people, quality criteria, information and communication (Bergevoet et al. 2006:22-24).

The next phase is the actual selection of objects that can be deaccessioned. It is important in this phase that the selected objects are described and the reasons are clarified (Bergevoet et al. 2006:27). A final control is important to see if the objects have absolutely no historical value (Deltaplan), are fully registrated and documented, and are not legally in possession of donators, depositors or the government (Bergevoet et al. 2006:28-31). In the last case the museum might not possess the objects and has the obligation to return the object to its legal owners.

The third phase contains the actual deaccession and replacement of the object. The objects can be given, exchanged or sold to other museums. In that case all museums have to be informed about the deaccession, through personal contact, a special exhibition of the objects or the internet. This way museums are the first to be able to acquire the objects for their collection (Bergevoet et al. 2006:39-40). Objects can also be sold in the market sphere. This can be done in private with certain art dealers or in the open through a public auction. The LAMO clearly prefers the later method, because of its transparency (Bergevoet et al. 2006:45).

The final phase is that of completion. To round off the whole process the eventual returns of the sale have to be collected, final registrations have to be done and when an object was not wanted it could be destroyed (Bergevoet et al. 2006:45). The money that is collected from the sale can be used under certain restrictions: ‘invest the proceeds from the sale of objects exclusively on improving the quality of the collection (purchases, restoration or active conservation)’ (Bergevoet et al. 2006:49).


Although the LAMO made deaccession acceptable as a collection management tool, some disputable incidents happened since the introduction in 1999/2000.
In 2005/2006 the director Karel Schampers of the ‘Frans Hals Museum’ in Haarlem proposed to sell two paintings from the museum to finance the build of a new depot. The circumstances of the old depot were terrible; insects and leaks in the roof were threatening the collection. To build a new depot 5 million euro was required. The local municipality of Haarlem was willing to provide 2 million, but the rest of the finances should be covered by the sale of paintings. Schampers decided to select a painting of Michael Sweerts and a painting of Benjamin West. Both works did not really fit in the collection and could bring in a high return (more than 6 million euro on foreign markets). Besides, selling these two paintings could save several thousand other works of art. But the critique on this proposal from the government, the ‘Dutch Museum Association’ and the museum field was fierce. The deaccession of objects for the finance of a new depot was in contravention of the LAMO and the ethics for museums. Sale is not an alternative to receive money. The painting of West also turned out to be a donation to the museum and the descendants of the donator protested against the sale. The museum had not investigated the history of the painting (Gubbels et al. 2007:164-171).
In the same period another affaire occurred. In March 2005 ‘Gemeentemuseum Den Haag’ organized an auction to sell about 100 paintings that were no longer of value for the collection. The auction was applauded for its transparency, but one of the presented paintings let to a fierce discussion. During the auction there was much interest in this painting of I. Mackoff, because it was recognized as a painting of Ilja Masjkov, a member of the Russian subavant-garde. A mistake was made with the name of the painter and the painting was retrieved from the auction.

But the actual discussion about the deaccession of this painting started when an article was published which pointed at the high return of the sale of the painting at Sotheby’s in London. Some time after the auction the ‘Gemeentemuseum’ had sold the painting of Masjkov for 3.3 million euro in London, after Sotheby’s had received many calls from interested Russian buyers. The museum had not been open about this and they had not provided Dutch buyers with the opportunity to purchase the painting. The museum had kept everything a secret, because they did not want this high return to threaten their position in the art market, in which they regularly received high discounts as a museum. Commercial reasons made the museum neglect the LAMO (Gubbels et al. 2007:138-139).


To prevent this kind of situations in the future, transparency is one of the most important purposes of the latest LAMO. An institution that plays a large role in this is the ‘Institute Collection Netherlands’ (Instituut Collectie Nederland, ICN). The ICN was established in 1997 and as a segment of the ministry of culture this organization is dedicated to the development and spread of knowledge concerning management, preservation and accessibility of cultural heritage collections (www.icn.nl). An important project of the ICN is the ‘Replacement-database’ (Herplaatsingsdatabase). This is a website on the internet which provides museums with the opportunity to present the works they want to deaccession to other museums. These other museums can enter the site and see if they are interested in the presented objects. If after two months no museum shows any interest in a certain object, enough effort is made to find a good place for the object in another museum. Now the object can be sold to other (private) parties (www.herplaatsingsdatabase.nl).

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