Museums, values & deaccession

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‘For how much longer is it possible for conservators in the Netherlands to practice their hobby on costs of the government?’

From the beginning of the conversation museum director Wilbert Weber is persistent in his vision that the collection of the ‘Zeeuws maritiem muZEEum’ is not primary to the museum. A museum is not about its collection he states, but about what it contributes to society. The ‘Zeeuws maritiem muZEEum’ exists, because it is there to contribute to the people and the economy of Vlissingen, Zealand and the Netherlands. This is what is most important. The collection is only there to accomplish this.

This does not say that the museum hasn’t got nice pieces of art in the collection, that are of importance to Vlissingen, Zealand and the cultural heritage of the Netherlands. Wilbert Weber only tries to show that he is not willing to participate in the collecting mania of most museums, because that is not what it is all about.

When I started here in Zealand I could be busy all day with polishing coins. During this I would come to the discovery that we missed a coin from 1926. Accordingly I went to search for this coin, but nobody wondered at that time if it was worth it to collect that coin and even that whole collection’.

Museums have a task that goes beyond collecting and that is contributing to society. This is the difference between a collector and a museum. According to Wilbert Weber unfortunately many museums in the Netherlands are still collectors. The conservators are inclined to filling the gaps in the collection, collecting the pieces that every museum ‘should’ have and following the international artists that bring the most prestige. But what is the use of this? ‘What is the use of acquiring a Hockney if you already have two Hockney’s in your collection?’ This might be satisfying for the conservator, but what does this contribute to society? Museums are not there for the hobby of the conservator; museums should disseminate a message.

For Wilbert Weber the collection is not his first interest. When he leaves the museum the media should not ask him to recall his most beautiful acquisition for the museum. He wants to be asked if he managed to change some of the mentality in Vlissingen and Zealand, what he made clear to the people of Vlissingen and Zealand and what he contributed to society.

Therefore right now he is constantly asking himself why he is collecting certain things and what the surplus value is of these objects. ‘What is the surplus value of the museum for society?’
From this point of view Wilbert Weber has developed an interesting vision on the deaccession of museum objects. But this point of view has not developed without reason. The ‘Zeeuws maritiem muZEEum’ experienced that the collection alone was not enough to justify the existence of the museum. In the nineties the museum was confronted with the fact that only 4000 till 5000 visitors per year attended the museum. The province and the municipality no longer had any interest in subsidizing such a place. To turn this around and keep the museum in existence Wilbert Weber had to make a radical change. The museum had to gain its surplus value to the community again. But what did the community want? After a market research the sea turned out to be very important in the lives of the people of Vlissingen and Zealand. To create a strong profile, earn a special place back in the market and contribute to society, the museum decided to focus on the relation between the ‘Zeeuw’ and the sea. From then on the ‘Stedelijk museum Vlissingen’ would be the ‘Zeeuws maritiem muZEEum’. A policy was made to develop the museum from a local to a regional maritime museum for Vlissingen, Zealand and the Netherlands.

To accomplish this primary task the collection had to contribute to this goal. A revision of the collection was needed, because what exactly was collected in the former years? The ‘Stedelijk museum Vlissingen’ was founded in 1890. From then on the museum collected everything that had to do with the history of the city. This led to a large and rich collection with some beautiful archeological and art historical pieces. Unfortunately the collecting mania and lack of direction also brought many uninteresting objects into the collection.

For instance, everything that was demolished in Vlissingen and could be interesting to preserve, was dropped in the depot of the museum. ‘Because of the sea many houses in Vlissingen where finished with tiles on the outside. Consequently we now own a tile-collection that is bigger than the collection of the tile-museum (Nederlands Tegelmuseum). What do I have to do with it?’

In the fifties it was fashion to make period rooms. The predecessors of Wilbert Weber therefore made an eighteenth century room and a period kitchen. To enable this presentation materials were collected. Consequently there were objects in the depots that had nothing to do with Vlissingen and only had value for the presentation. Therefore Wilbert Weber says: ‘what is keeping me from deaccessioning these presentation materials if the demand for it is no longer there?’

There was potential in the collection, but by taking on the role of museum as a contributor to society, the museum collection had to be revised. The profile of ‘maritime museum for the ‘Zeeuw’’ gave the museum the possibility to make choices.

Accordingly the ‘Zeeuws maritiem muZEEum’ defined a deaccession policy even before the first LAMO was published. In this deaccession policy the emphasis is put on the surplus value of the collection and the single objects for society. Which objects contribute to the story of the ‘Zeeuw’ and the sea and which don’t? Continuously the collection is checked to see if all objects are worth it to be in the museum. According to a simple flow chart each object is examined on its connection to Vlissingen, its connection to Zealand, its surplus value to society and its art historical value.

Objects that relate to Vlissingen and Zealand and strengthen the story of the sea are of course preserved. Objects with no relation to Vlissingen and Zealand, but with art historical value have to be preserved also. If another museum is collecting similar objects Wilbert Weber has no problem with giving the objects away. ‘Why should I preserve the objects if they have absolutely no use for my story?’ If no other museum is willing to preserve the object of art historical value, the museum feels obliged to keep the object. Although the object might never be exhibited, it is of value to society.

Finally an object that has no value to any of the aspects above is deaccessioned. Before the deaccession starts, however, the museum carefully examines the possible donators of the object or the descendants of the artist. If deaccession is approved, the objects are sold at an auction. This applies, for instance, to a part of the collection of leaden pieces that were once used to balance ships. The museum possessed about 400 of these leaden pieces. ‘Do I need to preserve all 400?’ Wilbert Weber asked himself. The pieces had value for Vlissingen and Zealand, but preserving five or six pieces with different angles and shapes would be enough, certainly because nowadays we can make samples of it. Therefore Wilbert Weber states: ‘I am glad to bring these objects to the auction’. Wilbert Weber also took into consideration the fact that the leaden pieces were worth € 5000,00. Part of the leaden pieces could be converted into a lot of money at an auction. ‘Not an internet-auction, because that brings in too little’.

Wilbert Weber is not only taking the surplus value of the objects and their monetary worth into consideration. In talking about the abundant collections of pottery in certain museums, he refers to the costs of preserving these objects in depots. ‘There are museums that exhibit pottery in there exhibition spaces. Nothing wrong with that, but in their museum depots there are 600 to 700 more of these pieces. This while only a little part of the shelf, large enough for one piece, costs € 100,00 per year’. Wilbert Weber argues that such pieces of pottery should be brought on the market. Money can be earned with the sale of these pieces and the depot costs are economized. Every year a lot of money is saved. If after a while it turns out that a certain piece is needed again, there is enough money to buy the piece back. According to Wilbert Weber it will be possible to purchase these objects back. Everything of quality is preserved and will sooner or later end up on the market again.

Therefore the preservation costs of museum objects should be taken into account. This also applies to the manageability of the collection. ‘Whether the depot space is unlimited or not, attention should be paid to the controllability of the collection’. The volume of the collection must be manageable. Large objects cannot be preserved without taking the difficulties and the costs of preservation into account. If a certain object is already preserved somewhere else, the ‘Zeeuws maritiem muZEEum’ is not going to spend costs on the preservation of the same object. The museum simply asks such objects in deposit.

On the other hand, costs can be made and extra depot-space can be sought if an object is of absolute value to the museum. In this case everything will be done to preserve the object like, for instance, in the case of the preservation of an underwater craft. Nevertheless, the costs of acquisition and preservation should be reasonable all the time. ‘It is professional to reflect on how much an object is worth to preserve, and to realize that it is simply a pity when it is unjustifiable to preserve that object’.
Unfortunately many museums still don’t think and act like this. Museums are still not seen as ordinary companies. According to Wilbert Weber, however, a museum is a company with output, which should be run as any other company. Nevertheless, many museum directors still think of their museums as little islands. Wilbert Weber is amazed by this attitude. Many museums are only collecting to collect. They do not ask themselves what their value for society is and they are afraid to make choices. They do not want to make changes in the collections of their predecessors, they are afraid to make mistakes during deaccession or they do not want objects to end up in private hands or foreign countries. ‘How is this possible?’, Wilber Weber wonders. ‘For how much longer is it possible for conservators in the Netherlands to practice their hobby on costs of the government? [..] If you are professional, you are able to make choices and your are able to see what is important to preserve and what is not’.
According to Wilbert Weber the efficiency of museums and the choices they make will become the subject of debate soon. In the periphery the discussion is already rising. There are two reasons for this. One, the financial means are more restricted. The provinces or municipalities have a smaller budget and accordingly choices have to be made. The money that is spent has to be spent well. Two, in the periphery the common level is agrarian and economic. The city counselors will ask what the surplus value is of a museum. ‘There is an urge in the periphery’.

Consequently the province of Zealand is subsidizing the ‘Zeeuws maritiem muZEEum’, but with certain requirements. The ‘Zeeuws maritiem muZEEum’ has to contribute to society to be worth its subsidy. Wilbert Weber finds this absolutely normal. It has to be justified why a part of the provinces budget is going to the museum. The museum has to show what the province is getting in return. For a long time, however, this connection was absent. Cultural organizations were subsidized and nobody asked questions about it. The cultural organizations didn’t complain and they could do what ever they wanted. Now that financial means are shrinking, also due to the economic crisis, things are changing and will change further in the future. The connection between subsidies and value for society will become important again. ‘The payer decides’.

Therefore Wilbert Weber also wonders why it is ‘so not done’ to close a museum nowadays. In the past museums came and went, but now when a museum is closed everybody is crying bloody murder. But if the museum had no value to society anymore, why shouldn’t it be cut from subsidy and closed down? There is too much preserved anyway, according to Wilbert Weber, and especially too much of the same. This has become clear with the digitalization of museum collections.

In Zealand, for instance, it appeared that certain museums were preserving objects that were also preserved by museums four kilometers further. What is the use of that? Therefore the province of Zealand is making an inventory of what is truly important to preserve. This way a lot of costs can be economized.

Wilbert Weber is an advocate of this kind of thinking. Although there are still city counselors, with whom he has to cooperate, who say that ‘what is old should be preserved’, Wilbert Weber is pointing them at the inefficiency of this point of view. Museums have a task for society, because they are financed by society. Society must be able to state requirements and museums need to realize that. ‘Are the subsidies for museums still justifiable when there are people without a roof above their head?’ The surplus value of museums, which of course is there according to Wilbert Weber, must be clarified. Once this has happened the collection will become a tool to contribute to society. Accordingly the collection can be checked on its surplus value. Deaccession will become a continuous process in the management of museums.
The moment that money becomes an issue, and this moment will come, museums will have to make this change’. The ‘Zeeuws maritiem muZEEum’ already did.
7.2.1 Discourse Analysis

Wilbert Weber is straightforward in his ideas, visions and statements. He says what he means and does not seem to mince his words. His values are portrayed rather clear in the conversation.

Interesting is the returning remark: ‘what is the surplus value of the museum for society?’. Throughout the whole conversation Wilbert Weber is concerned with and referring to the surplus value of his museum to society and the surplus value of all the single objects in the collection of the museum. This does not only show us the importance he attaches to the social values of his museum, it also shows us his economic perspective on the matter.
According to Wilbert Weber a museum has to contribute to society. This is projected in the questions he asks himself. Is society better of with 400 pieces of lead in a depot? Certainly not and that is how Wilbert Weber weighs his collection. The cultural value of his collection does not justify the existence of the museum. He doesn’t care if a painting is painted by a famous artist; he only wonders if the painting contributes to the story of the ‘Zeeuw’ and the sea. In this light he uses deaccession as a necessary tool. An important observation during the conversation is the fact that Wilber Weber does not refer to the word ‘deaccession’ with the Dutch word ‘afstoten’, but with the more positive word ‘ontzamelen’, which refers to a continuous process of deaccessioning. For Wilber Weber deaccession is a normal organizational process that strengthens his idea of ‘the museum’. The social values of Wilbert Weber have a strong influence on the policies of the ‘Zeeuws martiem muZEEum’.
But so have his economic values. A museum has to contribute to society, because society pays for it. The ‘Zeeuws maritiem muZEEum’ is subsidized by the local government and thus paid for by the Dutch taxpayer. Therefore the money should be used as efficient and socially optimal as possible. Each object that Wilbert Weber acquires and preserves costs money; money that could be used for other purposes. The objects that are purchased and preserved in the depots must benefit society, because otherwise public money is wasted. Thus money must be used efficiently to create surplus value and opportunity costs have to be kept in mind. Therefore Wilbert Weber is not afraid to talk in numbers and prices. He is not afraid to say and do what other museum directors don’t. The fact that he took into consideration that the leaden pieces he owned were worth € 5000,00, tells us that a museum director can be as rationally and economically minded as any other corporate director. Why should money, costs, efficiency and rationality be dirty words in the museum field? For Wilbert Weber an economic perspective is normal. If the objects have no value to the museum, Wilbert Weber is better off selling them and using the return of the sale to benefit the story of the ‘Zeeuw’ and the sea. He has no problem with converting certain objects into money.
It must be noticed, however, that Wilbert Weber is absolutely not focused on generating money with deaccession. The remark ‘not an internet-auction, because that brings in too little’, should not be wrongly interpreted. His opinion is simply that means should be used as efficient as possible. A museum owes it to society to use its financial means and its collection to the fullest.
Remarkable is the amazement with which Wilbert Weber questions why other museum directors don’t think like this. There are multiple times that he refers to the professionalism or rather unprofessionalism of his colleagues in the museum field. According to Wilbert Weber there is too much fear. Fear for losing our cultural heritage, making changes in former policies and making the wrong choices. But this fear does not legitimate the waste of public money, the inefficiency inside museums and resistance to change. Wilbert Weber keeps being fateful to his social and economic values. Therefore Wilbert Weber himself seems fearless. He has his mind made up. He knows what he wants and how he wants to accomplish this. Deaccession is a continuous process in reaching his goal: contributing to Vlissingen, Zealand and the Netherlands.
It is clear that the conversation with Wilbert Weber differs a lot from the conversation with Marijke Brouwer of ‘Museum Het Valkhof’. Wilbert Weber is a museum director who rejects collecting for the sake of collecting and preserving for the sake of preserving. Wilbert Weber is mostly inclined to the social and economic values of his museum. His economic point of view is refreshing in the non-economic museum field.

7.3 Karel Schampers / Anke van der Laan

Collection: Old, modern and contemporary visual art, industrial art, city history

Owner Collection: Municipality of Haarlem

Reach: Local

Financing: Subsidized by municipality of Haarlem, sponsors for projects

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