In the last 20 years there definitely has been much discussion about deaccessioning museum objects within the museum field, the government and the media. Social and cultural values seem to have ruled the conversation, but economic values have lead to the periods in time in which deaccession was most fiercely discussed.
An important factor in all the discussions has been the different perceptions of the institution of ‘the museum’. Is the museum an institution only there to serve the public or should the museum also be seen as a corporation on its own? These different positions influence the values that are enhanced. ‘Proponents of freer deaccession policies focus on the role of the [..] museum as a corporation, equipped with a board of directors that furthers the greater purposes of the organization. Critics of deaccession focus on the [..] museum as a trust, officiated by a board of trustees which must further the specific purpose of the trust, as defined by the settlor, for the benefit of the public’ (Goldstein, 1997:218). But which position is taken most of the time in the Netherlands? Which values are expressed in the conversations about deaccessioning museum objects?
6.4.1 Social Values
In the United States most museums are non-profit organizations run by boards of private citizens and financed by private donations. There is little law concerning the deaccession of museum objects and this means that ‘whether a museum in the United States engages in deaccessioning is pretty much left to its governing board, acting in light of its own particular circumstances’ (Malaro, 2004:332-333). Of course there are ethical obligations, but museums are relatively free to act in their own interests. Social values seem to be of less importance.
In the Netherlands most museums are heavily subsidized and manage collections that are owned by the local or provincial government. Consequently the Dutch museums have a stronger ethical responsibility to justify their actions to the public. This social aspect influences the conversation about deaccessioning museum objects. Deaccession has to be done in the open and in the most optimal case with the agreement of the public. Unfortunately it is difficult to take the public opinion into consideration. Nevertheless it would be socially desirable, since public money is involved and museums are often seen as public goods. ‘The trustees of an art museum, those entrusted to care for and maintain a particular community’s patrimony, do not owe a fiduciary duty to a particular person but to the public as a whole. The deaccession of art is, in a sense, a sale of the public’s property’ (Goldstein, 1997:214). Therefore museum ethics and laws, like the law on the protection of our cultural heritage, restrict museums in their actions.
Important is also the fact that deaccession is irreversible. Mistakes can be made and decisions might be regretted (Bevers & Halbertsma, 1991:56-57). It can be socially irresponsible to make time-bounded decisions. Some professionals have stated that temporary visions, ruling ideas and developments in science and technique have too much influence on deaccession. This can have undesirable consequences for society, as the loss of our cultural heritage can be a consequence (Bergevoet et al. 2006:55-56). Therefore deaccession should be done seriously and objectively. Actions must be justifiable.
From a social point of view it can be questioned if deaccession is justifiable.
Museums have the task of preserving our cultural heritage. The strong commitment of museums to this task leads to collections with social values, like solidarity, understanding and love, for individuals and society. This creates the common feeling that museum collections are important for society. Many professionals believe that museums and museum collections have option value, existence value, bequest value, prestige value and education value. These values lead to the condemnation of the deaccession of museum objects:
The option value of a museum and its collection points at the value people ascribe to the possibility of attending a museum in the future. Consequently the argument follows that museum objects should not be deaccessioned, because there can be interest in the objects in the future (Frey & Meier, 2003:6-7).
The existence value concerns the benefits that people have from knowing that a museum exists (Frey & Meier, 2003:6-7). For certain people it is satisfying to know that a museum exists as an element in the surrounding cultural landscape, even though they will never visit the museum (Throsby, 2001:37).
People also derive utility from knowing that a museum is appreciated by other countries (Frey & Meier, 2003:6-7). This prestige value leads to the creation of large prestigious collections and little deaccession.
Finally museums have educational value. People value museums, because museums and their collections contribute to their own or to other people’s sense of culture (Frey & Meier, 2003:6-7). It helps people to define their cultural identity, it provides a jurisdiction to look outwards and it generates knowledge (Throsby, 2001:37).
Because of these values certain museums decide not to deaccession objects. They believe that museum collections form our collective memory. Deaccession will mean the loss of some part of this memory for now and for future generations, especially when objects are sold to foreign countries. The social commitment of museums makes them feel responsible for our collective memory (Bergevoet et al. 2006:55-56).
From this point of view social values are more important than economic values.
Notice that most of the values above are ‘non-user benefits’. Future generations, for instance, are able to benefit from all the efforts that museums put into collecting today. The museums are not compensated for these efforts right now. Museums provide social values for which they are not compensated by revenue (Frey & Meier, 2003:7). Social values weigh more than economic values.
This also applies to the following argument: deaccession is bad for the reputation and trustworthiness of a museum. Although the sale of a certain object can bring in a high return or could clear a lot of space in the depots, museums are careful because of the negative effects on the social network of their museum. Potential donators might be less willing to donate works of art, if these works are deaccessioned in the future (Bergevoet et al. 2006:55-56).
Museums are also careful with selling objects to other museums for market prices. Many museum objects are acquired with public money from the government or foundations. If a museum decides to deaccession a work that is acquired with public money, it would be socially undesirable to let another museum purchase the object with new public money. There would be paid twice for the same museum object. It is socially not justifiable to make the same parties responsible for the acquisition of the same object, but only for another museum (Ott, 2007:40).
On the other hand, this social thinking pattern also creates the feeling that museum objects should be accessible and visible for everybody that is interested. In contradiction to the reasoning above, this social value is used as an argument fór the deaccession of museum objects. Objects that are not used in the museum anymore should be deaccessioned. Through deaccession the objects are taken out of the depot and made visible for the public. That means that from then on everybody is able to enjoy these objects again and isn’t that what art and culture is about? (Bergevoet et al. 2006:53-55). This is therefore the most important social argument for deaccession.
Another social argument forms the idea that objects belong to their original context and country (Bergevoet et al. 2006:53-55). These objects have more meaning for people elsewhere. These social considerations lead to deaccession.
The same applies to objects that form a threat to the health and security of museum employees and visitors (radioactive material) or have a negative effect on the preservation of other objects (Bergevoet et al. 2006:53-55). It is socially irresponsible to preserve such objects.
6.4.2 Cultural Values
The cultural values, like beauty, inspiration and sacredness, which museums want to portray and are expected to portray, create an inclination to the quality and content of the collection. The museum collection should consist out of objects with high quality, interesting content and inspiring meanings.
These cultural values make deaccession an instrument to improve the quality of the collection. The collection becomes stronger through the deaccession of qualitatively weaker objects, objects that are not representing the museum collection, broken and damaged objects, over-represented objects which make the collection unbalanced, isolated objects that have no connection to the rest, objects of which the analysis, documentation and publication is finished and double objects. A stronger collection profile improves the quality of the collection (Bergevoet et al. 2006:53-55). Many museums describe their collection profile in a collection plan. In this plan deaccession is used to create ‘a coherent, well-rounded collection that best serves the needs of the institution’ (Gardner & Merritt, 2004:292).
From a cultural point of view it can, however, also be undesirable to deaccession museum objects. Deaccession can have negative effects on museums, museum collections and art historical developments.
One argument is that a museum collection is a coherent whole. Most of the time it represents a history of decades of collecting. A collection reflects the visions on collecting and preserving of former generations. It shows us what was considered important and which objects were of considerable value to society. This should be respected and kept intact. Therefore many museum directors do not deaccession objects that were acquired by their predecessors. They believe that the cultural choices of former directors should be preserved.
Museum objects are also seen as objects with an intrinsic cultural value. The objects are worth more then their current use value and should not be deaccessioned because at a certain moment people loose interest in them. These objects will always have value for the cultural world and art history (Bergevoet et al. 2006:55-56).
A final negative consequence of deaccession is the association with dealing in art. Museums are totally different from art galleries and do not want to be associated with them, as these galleries operate in the market. By deaccessioning objects on the market, museums fear to harm their cultural reputation and non-market interests (Van Mensch, 2003:17).
6.4.3 Economic Values
The LAMO provides a list of regularly used arguments for and against deaccession. As expected economic arguments for or against deaccession are hard to find in this list. There only seem to be two slightly more economic arguments.
The first is an argument for deaccession as a tool to reduce the management burdens. Through deaccession the burdens of conservation are decreased. This is particularly relevant in the case of large voluminous objects (Bergevoet et al. 2006:53-55). It should be noticed, however, that management burdens are not explicitly explained as financial burdens. The last sentence of the argument seems to imply that this might be after all a more practical argument. The lack of space for large objects in museum depots is offered here as a reason for deaccession.
The second argument is an argument against deaccession, because deaccession spoils the market. ‘The deaccession of many similar objects can lead to a depreciation of the market value of those objects. The other way around, deaccession can also create a demand, while it is in the museum’s interest to keep the market as limited and uninteresting as possible (applies to for instance protected animals)’ (Bergevoet et al. 2006:56). This last example, about the protected animals, makes me wonder if this argument is based on economic values. It seems to be more of an ethical argument.
So, although the LAMO states that the list exists of many common arguments for and against deaccession, without regard as to the validity of the statements, they seem to make a value judgment (Bergevoet et al. 2006:53). The arguments to raise money for deficits, to acquire new paintings or to build a new depot, which we have come across in our investigation of the history of the conversation, are not mentioned in the LAMO. Are these economic arguments absent because social and cultural values prevail (Klamer) or are economic values simply hidden, as in the rest of the art world (Abbing)?
The idea of the absence of economic values in museums nowadays does not seem to be realistic and acceptable. There are actually various reasons to believe that economic values might be at stake in decisions about deaccessioning objects.
In the 1960s the Dutch economy was growing and the awareness grew that the government was also responsible for the arts. The amount of subsidized cultural organizations grew fast until the 1970s, when the dangers of subsidizing became noticeable. Cultural organizations were focusing less on their audience and more on the requirements of the government (Van Dulken, 2002:14). At the same time the economy was slowing down and the burdens of all the subsidies became too large for the government. A program was started to make the government expenses more rational, efficient and effective (Van Dulken, 2002:15-17). In the 1980s, however, the Netherlands really felt the consequences of the economic crisis that came to existence in the meanwhile. Now it became a matter of government retrieval. Subsidies were reconsidered and cut back (Van Dulken, 2002:21-26). Under minister Hedy d’Ancona cultural organizations had to become more conscious of their own efficiency, effectiveness, limited budget and additional income (Van Dulken, 2002:33). Consequently in the last ten years museums, among other cultural institutions, have become more professional, entrepreneurial, income-seeking and market oriented. In 1999 the former minister of culture Rick van der Ploeg explicitly supported cultural institutions to become more efficient and self-providing (Ministerie van OCW, 1999). Subsidies were cut back to give cultural institutions the incentive to create their own revenues. The concept of the ‘enterprising museum’ of Frey provides a good description of this development (Frey, 1994:330). Accordingly museums have become more visitor-oriented. The exhibition, educational and entertainment functions that many museums fulfill nowadays have been influenced by this more market-oriented thinking. Special exhibitions and blockbusters are organized to generate extra income and to attract wealthy sponsors.
But not only good has come of it. Educative tools, for instance, are used to get more subsidy. The more visitors and the more attention paid to education, multiculturalism, solidarity and so on, the higher is the chance that the government approves to the required subsidy (Ministerie van WVC, 1990:31). So, the functions that museums fulfill in society today are influenced by financial considerations.
A more businesslike attitude has developed among museums and there is more feeling for commercial and economic values. These changes could indicate that economic values might also be more important in the conversation about deaccessioning museum objects. English research has shown that on average only 20% of the collection is shown (Van Mensch, 2003:29). This means that the other 80% of the collection is stocked in the museum depots. This is not only socially unsatisfactory, but also economically. The retention of every object in the collection involves high fixed and on-going costs for purchase, preservation, storage, climate-control and so on (O’Hagan, 1998:201). The costs of storing an object in a depot are substantial and are even larger if the opportunity costs are taken into account. The purchase and storage costs of an object could have been used to achieve other goals of a museum (O’Hagan, 1998:201). ‘At a (real) rate of interest of 5% per year for instance, a painting held by a museum and worth one million Ecus means a stream of income of 50.000 Ecus forgone each year, i.e. which could have been used in a different way’ (Frey, 1994:327).‘There is no way of getting around this “opportunity cost” of conserving for the sake of conserving’ (Montias, 1995:75). Museum directors and trustees are perfectly competent and rational people to see this (Montias, 1995:71). The question is if museum directors want to act on this or if social and cultural values make them indifferent towards these costs? Will they ask themselves the question of utility: is this object useful? It seems that in time they will have to. ‘If once upon a time museums – or at least museum directors or senior curators acting on their behalf – could collect in such a passionate, vital, and self-expressive way, collect with that some bravado and zest that typifies the private collector in hot pursuit of his or her quest, such a time has long since gone’ (Weil, 2004:291). Museum collecting today has to be adjusted to the burdens of caring for a collection.
Therefore Goldstein endorses a greater acceptance of deaccessioning for economic reasons. ‘Authoritarian status and professional codes of ethics must be revised in order to allow museum trustees and directors to make full use of their resources when trying to maintain financial solvency’ (Goldstein, 1997:217). Many economists agree that the stock that is rarely or never exhibited should be sold, so the returns can be used for the acquisition of more suitable objects for the collection or for other purposes, like conservation, extending showroom capacity and increasing visitor hours (Frey, 1994:326). In this light it is highly questionable why returns from sale should only be used for acquisitions, as stated in the ethical codes for museums. It seems that ‘[t]he public and professional communities refuse to accord the phenomenal expense and importance of art maintenance [..]; greater understanding of these costs would help to educate those groups who oppose the use of deaccession funds for maintenance costs’ (Goldstein, 1997:225). The ICOM Code of Ethics declares that one of the key functions of museums is to acquire objects and to keep them for posterity. Why then does the same code forbid the use of returns from deaccession for maintenance? (Goldstein, 1997:225). The greater social and cultural value of artistic institutions must be considered, before condemning deaccession for financial reasons (Goldstein, 1997:217).
‘Nationaal Museum van Speelklok tot Pierement’ in Utrecht has already noticed the high economic values that are at stake with deaccession. Their objects do not need to be sold for the highest possible prices, but also certainly not for dumping prices (Gubbels et al. 2007:35). There are several experts in the field that feel the same way. According to Charlotte van Rappard, former head-inspector of the Heritage-inspection/Collections, financial reasons become more and more important concerning deaccession (Gubbels et al. 2007:47). Frank Buunk, art dealer of ‘Simonis & Buunk’, states that museums can benefit from this more contemporary attitude in which profit, efficiency and utility are normal (Gubbels et al. 2007:50). And museums need this more businesslike attitude according to Marijke Brouwer, director of ‘Museum Het Valkhof’ and member of the ‘Commission Museum Ethics’. Many museums, for instance, seem to be afraid to sell objects to other museums. Deaccession through gifts, exchange or deposit is more common. Cause is the fact that ‘return’ and ‘commerce’ still seem to be contagious words in the museum field (Gubbels et al. 2007:50). When museums keep thinking like this their possibilities to create income remain restricted. Marijke Brouwer: ‘of course objects should be presented to museums first, but can this be for a reasonable price?’ (Gubbels et al. 2007:51). Frans Grijzenhout, professor ‘Cultural Heritage’ at the University of Amsterdam and former member of the ‘Commission Museum Ethics’, sees a further commercialization in the future, also concerning deaccession. Museums will exchange and sell more to other museums for more commercial prices (Gubbels et al. 2007:55).
A more commercial and businesslike attitude is not strange, certainly not when you realize how much costs are involved with deaccession. A proper cost-benefit analysis could point at the efficiency and effectiveness of replacement or sale (Gubbels et al. 2007:37, 92, 101). Money does play a role in museums, especially because it is a scarce resource. Most museums have a limited budget to fulfill all their different functions. Ever since the turn of the century there is been concern about the future of museums with on one side their financial problems and on the other side the growth of their collections (Hermans et al. 2008:265). In the future these concerns might become more relevant, because of the economic crisis we are in now. Through the greed of many people, the collapse of the financial system and the decline of the stock prices, companies, governments and ordinary people have to be more careful with their money and expenses. It is still unknown if the economic crisis has an effect on museums and what this effect will be. Fact is that one of the most important Dutch Foundations, the ‘VSBfonds’, has lost 1.6 milliard euro, meaning that less money is available for the projects of cultural organizations (Bockma, 2009:11). Sponsoring companies also have less money available for cultural organizations and are more reserved in signing new sponsor contracts. Festivals already feel this and have to be more creative in finding their finances (Fortuin, 2009). The economic crisis might make additional incomes for museums also more important. Until today museums in the Netherlands have had the fortunate position of being subsidized for the major part. The reaction of the government on the economic crisis concerning art and culture is still unclear. If subsidies are cut back, museums will have to find alternative financial resources. In the United States this has always been the case. Museums depend heavily on sponsors, gifts, private donations and their own revenue. Deaccession was therefore already much earlier of importance than in Europe. The ethic code of the American Association of Museums states, for instance, that ‘when disposing of an object due consideration should be given to the museum community in general as well as the wishes and financial needs of the institution itself’ (Malaro, 2004:333). Now that the need to acquire new revenue sources is more pressing in Europe, deaccession for financial reasons might become more important for museums in the Netherlands too (O’Hagan, 1998:199).
The final reason to believe that economic values might be at stake in the conversation about deaccession is that in recent years both the Ethic Code for Museums and the LAMO have been adjusted. The new Ethic Code for Museums provides more room for the use of revenues from deaccession than the older code. The first code from 1991 states: financial means that a management receives from deaccessioning objects should solely be used for the acquisition of new objects for the collection (Sman, 1991:15). The new code and the LAMO from 2006 state: use the revenues from the sale of objects solely for the improvement of the quality of the collection (acquisition, active conservation or restoration) (Bergevoet et al. 2006:49).
The reformulation from ‘solely for the acquisition’ to ‘the improvement of the quality’ provides more possibilities for financial arguments. Do not, for instance, the building of a new depot and the installation of a good climate system also contribute to the quality of the collection? This is exactly what the Frans Halsmuseum and municipality of Haarlem were saying in 2005/2006. After all it is still the responsibility of the museum itself to use the revenues for the right cause (Gubbels et al. 2007:53).
Returning to the economic crisis, it could in fact become more common that returns from deaccession are used for these purposes. Although current laws seem to limit the judgment and control of museum professionals, voluntary codes like the ethic code and the LAMO are not sufficient in times of huge economic, political and social pressure (Gubbels et al. 2007:54 & Goldstein, 1997:219).
So, it seems that after 20 years of selection and deaccession, businesslike and commercial thinking have more and more influence on the process of deaccession (Van Mensch, 2008:59). There are almost no negative reactions anymore to the auctioning of objects to maximize the profits. At a minimum museums expect to recover the costs for the deaccession. Does this relate to ‘the improvement of the quality of the collection’? Or has it actually more to do with business and economic values? To find out we need to take a look at deaccessioning museum objects in practice.
Deaccession in Practice
What does reality tell us? Are the assumptions in the former chapters confirmed or rejected by the museum directors that I have interviewed?
In this empirical part we will look at the conversation about deaccessioning museum objects in practice. What do museum directors actually value?
The first conversation I had was with Marijke Brouwer of ‘Museum Het Valkhof’ in Nijmegen. She was kind enough to free herself from other occupations to talk to me about deaccession, the collection of ‘Museum Het Valkhof’ and her personal vision on deaccession. It was a friendly conversation and the results are interesting as we will see right away.
My second interview with director Wilbert Weber of the ‘Zeeuws maritiem muZEEum’ in Vlissingen was also pleasant. It took Wilbert Weber almost two hours to explain everything about his experiences with deaccession, his strong opinions and statements and his personal frustrations concerning the museum field. He is an intriguing man and his statements are interesting for this research.
Unfortunately it was impossible to interview museum director Karel Schampers of the ‘Frans Hals Museum’ in Haarlem. To get an idea of his vision and the practice of deaccession inside the ‘Frans Hals Museum’ other sources needed to be addressed. I have solved this by collecting the written statement of the director made during a meeting organized by the ICN and by talking to Anke van der Laan, Head Presentations and Collection of the ‘Frans Hals Museum. Anke van der Laan elucidated the vision of Karel Schampers and the role of deaccession in the collection management of the ‘Frans Hals Museum’.
The fourth interview took place in the city of Leiden with adjunct-director Collections René Dekker of the ‘Naturalis – Nationaal Historisch Museum’. I talked to René Dekker for almost an hour and during our conversation his choice of words and his vision on the collection and the museum surprised me. I had other expectations in mind and therefore this conversation turned out to be instructive and a real contribution to this research.
Finally, I had my last conversation with Jan Teeuwisse of ‘Museum Beelden aan Zee’ in Scheveningen. While most people go to Scheveningen for the beach, the boulevard and the nice restaurants, on the first of July I was more interested in answering the question if a private museum has a different vision on deaccession. Fortunately director Jan Teeuwisse was prepared to tell me all about the philosophy of his private museum, the collection, the collection management and the deaccession of objects.
Let us take a look now at the actual conversations. Where did the museum directors talk about when they were asked to formulate their vision on collection management and in particular on the deaccession of museum objects? Were economic values mentioned or were these particular values rather denied?
Which values dominate the conversation about deaccessioning inside the museum walls?
7 Collection: Archaeology, old art and industrial art, modern and contemporary art
Owner Collection: Municipality of Nijmegen, Province Gelderland, Dutch State, Gelders Archaeologic Foundation, organizations, private owners
Reach: National, provincial
Financing: Subsidized, sponsors
.1 Marijke Brouwer
‘Museum Het Valkhof’
‘A lot of water will flow through the ‘Waal’ before we actually start deaccessioning some of our objects’
‘Museum Het Valkhof’, located on a beautiful place next to the ‘Waal’ in Nijmegen, is an interesting case for this research. Till today the museum has never deaccessioned any of its objects, but the intention is present. It will take a lot of time, careful thinking and hard work, but deaccession might be useful according to director Marijke Brouwer.
The collection of ‘Museum Het Valkhof’ exists of archeological objects, old art and industrial art, and modern and contemporary art pieces. This varied collection is the result of the merger of two museums exactly ten years ago; the provincial ‘Museum Kam’ of Gelderland and the municipal ‘Nijmeegs Museum Commanderie van St. Jan’ of Nijmegen were united in ‘Museum Het Valkhof – museum voor kunst en archeologie’. The building of ‘Museum Kam’ is still part of ‘Museum Het Valkhof’, but the core collection is no longer available there. ‘Museum Kam’ has become the ‘Gelders Archeologisch Centrum G.M. Kam’, where visitors mostly attend to research the archeological collection.
Unfortunately already at the start of ‘Museum Het Valkhof’ the lack of space has been an issue of concern. Meanwhile the collection grows continuously, while the depots are used up to their maximum capacity. The lack of space does, however, not play a role in the museums’ thoughts about deaccession. According to Marijke Brouwer deaccession is not meant to solve these problems. There are two main reasons for this.
First, Marijke Brouwer is convinced that the controllability of a collection can only be improved by a clear selection policy. This is already done by the museum by means of, for instance, being more selective in accepting gifts. The museum is glad to receive gifts from private collectors, but they have learned to question if the objects are strengthening the collection. This is neither black nor white. Usually when an individual offers his or her collection to the museum it is all or nothing. When one item is interesting for the museum, but the rest is not, should the museum accept this or choose to reject the whole offer? Gifts often come with restrictions like this and these can have unfortunate consequences. The museum has to be stringent at the front in order to prevent the collection from becoming unmanageable in the future.
Second, controllability is no reason for deaccession, because as Marijke Brouwer states: ‘the province of Gelderland and the municipality of Nijmegen are too proud of the museum and its collection’. ‘Museum Het Valkhof’ is not the owner of the collection. The museum is appointed as the preserver of the ‘Gelderse’ and ‘Nijmeegse’ cultural heritage, but the province and the municipality own the collections. Accordingly the province and the municipality provide the museum with the financial means to take care of their collections. Right now the museum receives enough subsidy from these governmental bodies to carry on with collecting and preserving their objects. Consequently the controllability is not an issue of great concern and it will definitely not lead to deaccession.
Things might change, however, when these governmental bodies notice the uncontrollability of the collection and the high costs of managing such a collection. Then the province and municipality might request the museum to be more selective and to start deaccessioning. Things can also change when the province and municipality have less money available for subsidizing the museum. In that case stringent selection and deaccession become urgent too.
At a certain point in the conversation Marijke Brouwer also mentions to me that in the worst case, when the museum does not receive financial means for preservation anymore, the museum is able to give the collection back to the province and the municipality and let them sort it out. Nevertheless, ‘as long as the governmental departments stand up for preservation and management there is no problem’.
In talking about deaccession, Marijke Brouwer refers to it solely as a tool to improve the quality and strength of the collection. Right now there are many objects in the depots that have no value to the museum at all. These are objects of which nobody knows what they are, where they came from and if they will ever be exhibited in the museum. A lot of these objects came from the municipal ‘Nijmeegs Museum Commanderie van St. Jan’, which collected everything of possible value. When the interior of the city hall was renewed, for instance, this museum would preserve all the old furniture in case it would become valuable in the future. Right now it is questionable if this kind of objects belong inside ‘Museum Het Valkhof’ or even any other museum in the Netherlands. The same applies to all the old building parts in the depots. These objects are usually not objects that are shown to the public and the question is if these objects should even be preserved at all. Is it valuable to preserve facades, roof tiles and so on, especially when nobody knows where the objects came from? ‘These objects have no museological values. Those are important aspects for us’, says Marijke Brouwer.
When ‘Museum Het Valkhof’ starts to deaccession it will therefore only imply objects of no museological value. Before this is possible, however, a lot of work has to be done. First a solid deaccession-policy must be formulated. This is something the museum is working on. The latest collection plan from 2005-2008 is being rewritten and deaccession will be one aspect in it. But before this policy can be formulated and used, careful research is required. To deaccession objects, the whole collection or a part of the collection needs to be looked at and defined. Objects that are selected for deaccession need to be researched. Objects can only be deaccessioned when their origin is traced and the artist, descendants or former owners agree with the deaccession. All this asks for a lot of time, effort and money. ‘A museum like us can probably never realize this. It is therefore the question if we will ever be able to deaccession’.
Hypothetically speaking, meaning that if deaccession would be possible, the museum would prefer to place the objects in another museum collection. According to Marijke Brouwer an object that has gained the status of public art possession, should remain that status. Everything should be done to keep that object in the public domain. This means that if another museum is interested in a certain object, they can have the object and maybe only pay a little handling fee.
Selling objects to other museums for a reasonable price should not be condemned either, according to Marijke Brouwer. It does, however, depend on the reasons of deaccession if this is necessary or not. If museums deaccession to be able to acquire new objects with the return of the sale to strengthen their collection, asking a reasonable price is logical. ‘Museum Het Valkhof’ would never do that, because that is not their intention with deaccession. ‘I personally also do not totally agree with this reasoning. If I wanted to strengthen my collection I would gain financial means through foundations or sponsors and not through selling my own collection’.
If everything is done to offer the objects to other museums and no museum is interested in the objects, it can be concluded that the objects have no museological value anymore. The objects can be sold on the market now. For Marijke Brouwer selling on the market therefore means selling objects that have lost their museological value.
The fact that Marijke Brouwer only thinks about selling invaluable objects is important to her, because she is convinced that our valuable cultural heritage should not end up in the hands of private individuals. Her argument is that before we know it the object is sold beyond the Dutch boarders. This means the loss of our cultural heritage. Therefore deaccession has to be watched carefully by museums themselves and by the ‘Dutch Museum Association’. It would be killing for our cultural heritage if the sale of objects were too easy and if decisions were made without regard for future consequences. This is also the reason that Marijke Brouwer prefers to think in terms of (long term) deposit, instead of deaccession through sale. Sale is definite and it is not always certain where an object ends up. On top of that it is much easier to give works in deposit. Deaccession through sale requires lots of research to the origin of the objects and the former owners of the objects. This is not necessary with deposit.
It is clear that Marijke Brouwer does not prefer the sale of museum objects on the market.
Nevertheless, she also states that it is important that objects are seen by the public. Unfortunately 50% of the objects that are bought by ‘Museum Het Valkhof’ do end up in the depots immediately, only 4,5% of the total collection is exhibited and the public is able to admire only 1% of the modern and contemporary art collection. Marijke Brouwer acknowledges that certain objects are bought out of some sort of collector’s mania. She also agrees that it is a waste to preserve objects that do not belong to the core collection, are not researched and never leave the depot. In that case they could better be deaccessioned.
In the case of archeology, however, it is important to preserve objects for the public domain. Visibility is one of the most important tasks of a museum, but a primary task is also to preserve our cultural heritage. It is important that ‘Museum Het Valkhof’ keeps certain objects in its depots, also with an eye on research possibilities. Objects from the archeological collection shall never be deaccessioned.
According to Marijke Brouwer it is also not a bad thing to have many objects in the depots. The depot-collection is there to be able to make changes in the presentations and to organize temporary exhibitions. Many works cannot be made visible all the time because of preservation difficulties. Depots are necessary to preserve these vulnerable objects.
The depot-collection also plays a role concerning objects that are given in deposit. The museum is accessible for deposits to other museums and the depot-collection makes this possible. Museums can also lend works from the permanent exhibition of ‘Museum Het Valkhof’. To prevent empty spots in the exhibitions it is fortunate that the museum is able to replace these objects by objects from the depot-collection. ‘A large collection forms the source for telling new stories to the public’.
7.1.1 Discourse Analysis
What is it that Marijke Brouwer tells us in the conversation above? Which values does she portray during the interview?
In the beginning of the conversation Marijke Brouwer mentions that the lack of depot-space in ‘Museum Het Valkhof’ shall never play a role in the deaccession of objects. This means that deaccession is not seen as a management tool. Aspects like costs, efficiency and effectiveness are not mentioned in combination with deaccession. One important reason for this is summarized in the following remark: ‘as long as the governmental departments stand up for preservation and management there is no problem’. Meaning that as long as the governmental bodies provide the museum with the necessary means, the museum has no urge to deaccession. This specific statement tells us a lot about the priorities of Marijke Brouwer. Although she recognizes that the depots of the museum are full and even overfull, collecting and preserving is carried on as long as the province and municipality don’t interfere. Meaning that Marijke Brouwer prefers collecting and preserving above managing and controlling the collection. Economic values are less important to her. Her perception of deaccession is clearly determined by the fact that the province of Gelderland and the municipality of Nijmegen own the collections and financially take care of these collections.
Marijke Brouwer sees deaccession therefore only as a tool to improve the quality and strength of the collection. Objects that should not be preserved in the museum can be given away to other interested museums. She is specific, however, in which kind of objects could be selected for deaccession on the market, namely only objects with no museological value. This is important, because it points us at her fear of losing our valuable cultural heritage to private individuals and foreign countries. Her inclination to the social and cultural values of the objects is stronger than the fact that these objects could bring in a high monetary return on the market. Although she states that the selling of museum objects to other museums for a reasonable price should not be condemned, Marijke Brouwer does not want to do it herself. With this she shows that she is absolutely not directed at economic values. For Marijke Brouwer the collection is not a tool to obtain financial means, so the returns of deaccession are of no concern to her.
Nevertheless, the remark of Marijke Brouwer about the time, effort and money that is involved with deaccession, shows that she is weighting up the positive and negative aspects of deaccession, including the more economic aspects. Although the museum sees that deaccession can be helpful in strengthening its collection, it might be impossible because the means to accomplish deaccession are lacking. It is not logical to invest in a deaccession process, when the result is a financial loss. The possible choice of Marijke Brouwer to desist from the use of deaccession is actually a rational and efficient choice in that case.
Desisting from deaccession is also a much easier decision to make for Marijke Brouwer. ‘Museum Het Valkhof’ is all about preserving our cultural heritage, portraying social and cultural values, and educating and amusing the public. Characteristic is the remark: ‘a large collection forms the source for telling new stories to the public’. This is where it is all about. But it also tells us that social and cultural values are more important than the management and control issues, caused by having such a large collection. Marijke Brouwer acknowledges that 50% of the objects that are acquired by the museum end up in the depots immediately and she can only justify this as a form of collector’s mania. Still she would never deaccession archeological objects, because they need to be preserved for research purposes and for our future generations. This is more important to her than the fact that only 4,5% of this collection is visible for the public and the fact that a lot of public money is used to preserve all these invisible objects. These more economic aspects actually remain unmentioned during the conversation.
It is clear that Marijke Brouwer has taken it as her primary responsibility to watch over and protect our cultural heritage. The conversation with Marijke Brouwer is a conversation with a museum director who is highly committed to the collecting, preserving and protecting of that part of our cultural heritage where ‘Museum Het Valkhof’ is directed at. Social and cultural values prevail in this conversation and will prevail as long as the province and the municipality provide Marijke Brouwer with enough finances, because in that case she will probably continue with collecting and preserving everything that is in the museums interest, even if this is not efficient in an economic and managerial perspective.
7 Collection: Zealand maritime history
Owner Collection: Municipality of Vlissingen, ‘Koninklijk Zeeuws Genootschap der Wetenschappen’, Dutch State, ‘Provinciale Stoomboot Diensten’, private owners