Museums, values & deaccession

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‘It was the necessity that drove us to the decision’

The ‘Frans Hals Museum’ is a museum that ruthlessly experiences the impact of restricted financial means on the management and preservation of a museum collection. In chapter 5 we have seen that in 2005/2006 the museum found itself in a difficult position, when the proposal of the sale of two paintings caused a major discussion in the media and the museum field. Director Karel Schampers proposed the sale of two paintings to finance the build of a new depot.

Anke van der Laan explains how at that time the horrible situation of the paintings in the depot and the lack of help from the municipality of Haarlem, drove Karel Schampers to think of such a solution. The depot in the attic of the museum was leaking and consequently numerous paintings and other objects were damaged. Already years of deliberation with the municipality of Haarlem had past, but the municipality simply had no financial means to finance the build of a new depot. Dejected the museum began to think: ‘what could the museum itself undertake? Were there ‘outsiders’ in the collection? Could these be converted into money?’

And indeed it appeared that there were two paintings that didn’t fit well into the museum collection anymore and therefore could be deaccessioned.

The first was a painting of Michel Sweerts. The painting was a gift from the friends association of the museum. At the time of the gift the painting was perceived as a picture of the atelier of Frans Hals. Unfortunately, after some research the painting turned out to be nothing like that. It didn’t even have a connection to Haarlem and since the ‘Frans Hals Museum’ only collects sixteenth and seventeenth century art from Haarlem, the painting became an outsider in the collection. The painting was an excellent candidate for sale, also because it was estimated for about six million euro. This painting ha[d] to be sacrificed in order to preserve thousands of other important objects’.

The second candidate was a painting of Benjamin West. This painting didn’t fit into the collection of the ‘Frans Hals Museum’ either. Unfortunately the museum didn’t investigate the history of the painting well before proposing its sale. A local journal discovered that the painting was a deposit and not as the museum thought a gift. Official documents were not found, but the descendants of the former owner of the painting protested against the sale.

Fortunately in the meantime the municipality of Haarlem was shocked by all the publicity, discussion and critique. The new alderman decided to change position and guaranteed the museum the financial means to build a new depot.

Nevertheless, until today the ‘Frans Hals Museum’ hasn’t received one euro from the municipality. As Anke van der Laan says with some sarcasm: ‘right now it looks as if we are going to get our new depot in 2010 or 2011 ... or 2012’.

Accordingly the situation in the depot of the museum is becoming worse every day. Since two and a half years the museum also discovered that asbestos was threatening the collection. The depot became forbidden territory and, until the museum starts a process in which the paintings are removed from the attic, cleaned and stored in an external depot, will remain so.
It is clear now that the ‘Frans Hals Museum’ has too little financial means to preserve and manage its collection. The situation in the depot is visibly damaging the art and therefore deaccession is needed. As Karel Schampers states: ‘does the collection, mostly also in terms of preservation and management, want to flourish, then there is no way of escaping from ‘cleaning’ the current possessions’. The museum already deaccessioned part of their collection acquired during the ‘Visual Artist Regulations’ (BKR), part of the eighteenth century collection and some of the private deposits. ‘This mostly concerns objects that do not fit into the collection profile and do not have a connection to what is primer to the collection; works that cannot flourish in any way and lead a hidden life in the depots. Works also that are qualitatively not strong enough in relation to the rest of the collection’. In this the museum is strict. The ‘Frans Hals Museum’ always had a clear vision on what they wanted to collect and exhibit. The museum is an art museum concerned with art from the city of Haarlem. Works are only deaccessioned if they are outsiders in the collection. Then not only the preservation and management of the collection are improved, but also the quality and the content of the collection profile.
Karel Schampers therefore labels deaccession as a good instrument for the improvement of the quality of the collection and the management and preservation conditions of the collection. Nevertheless, the museum is not focusing on creating a beautiful collection and deaccessioning all that is left. According to Anke van der Laan the essence is that ‘space, time, knowledge and means are used as efficiently as possible to preserve the works that really matter’. Museums are no longer in the luxurious position in which these elements are unlimited and neither is the government. A critical revision of these tools was necessary. As director Karel Schampers states, it is important that ‘there is a balance between the volume of a collection and the management of a collection’. Unfortunately he says ‘[m]ost museums are reticent in making corrections in their collection. But why should a collection be unassailable? It is only out of fear that corrections are not made’.

The ‘Frans Hals Museum’ is not afraid to weigh the benefits of their collection against the means that are needed for the maintenance of this collection.

The museum has a restoration atelier with two employees working 16 hours per week, thus 32 hours per week in total. Unfortunately, there is restoration work for the next 100 years. This means that only the most important works can be restored, but what happens to the rest? Deaccession is not a simple first solution, but the manageability, costs and means do play a role in the thoughts about deaccession. The museum took care, for instance, of many deposits. A part of these deposits was stored in the depot and never exhibited. Consequently these works got damaged more and more every day. Their condition was worse then when they had been placed above the couch of their rightful owners. Accordingly the costs of restoration were becoming higher and higher every day. The works could better be given back to their owners and now they are asked back when it is needed.

Unfortunately this selection process was impeded when the asbestos was discovered in the depot.

Part of the upcoming cleaning process, however, will be used to revise the whole collection of paintings again. With great care the museum will take a look at all its deposits and all the works that are never used in exhibitions.

The works that are deaccessioned will be deaccessioned according to the guidelines of the LAMO. The objects will be offered to other museums and placed on the internet. Karel Schampers: ‘[l]eading principle [..] is that the gift or permanent deposit is always preferred above sale’. It is not in the museums interest to receive monetary returns from deaccession anymore. It was when the museum was in need of a new depot, but otherwise this would never have been the intention of deaccession. Director Karel Schampers does, however, plead for a broader interpretation of the LAMO concerning the use of returns from sale’. Karel Schampers understands that the ‘Dutch Museum Association’ has to draw a line and protect our cultural heritage from sale for economic reasons. In the case of his own museum, however, he would have liked it if there had been more sensitivity towards the extraordinary situation of the museum. In such special circumstances museums should be able to use the returns from sale for any aspect that improves the quality and the management of the collection. The build of a new depot should be acceptable in case of necessity.

Running a museum is thus a continuous search for a balance between ideological goals and more business aligned goals. Meaning that a museum has a special task for society, but at the same time ordinary goals have to be reached and money has to be generated.

For Anke van der Laan it is clear that ‘as a museum you are the guardian of cultural heritage’. She is convinced of the fact that it is important to preserve the collection for future generations. There are, however, organizational targets that have to be considered too.

For instance, as a guardian of cultural heritage the ‘Frans Hals Museum’ has to be careful with its collection. The collection is vulnerable and has to be protected against exploitation. Nevertheless, visitor targets have to be achieved and income from entrance tickets has to be generated. In order to realize these business aligned goals the museum would prefer to exhibit all its objects to the public and provide them with numerous different and interchangeable presentations. This is not possible, because it is the task of the museum to preserve the collection for another 100 years and preferably even longer. In this case a trade-off has to be made to accomplish the socially most optimal outcome.

In the case of the painting of Benjamin West the museum managed to do this. After the fierce discussions about the sale, the museum stuck to its point and at the end of 2006 the painting of Benjamin West was sold. The museum did, however, require that the painting should end up in a public collection. Now the painting is visible in ‘The Louvre’ in Paris. Anke van der Laan explains that if a museum has the chance to require this, a museum should do this. Although it was no longer in the museums interest to keep the painting, valuable objects should remain in the public domain. Ideological goals and business aligned goals can be combined.

A special story in the conversation with Anke van der Laan is the story about ‘De Hallen’. ‘De Hallen’ is a division of the ‘Frans Hals Museum’ and exists of a separate building with four different exhibition spaces. Here the national and international modern and contemporary art of the museum is exhibited. The collection is divers, it ranges from photography up to sculptures, and it is quite large too. Anke van der Laan tells me that there are, for instance, containers stocked with sculptures bought in the eighties and nineties. These sculptures are not exhibited and although there are some nice pieces in this collection, most works seem to be irrelevant. Nevertheless, these objects will not be deaccessioned any time soon. The first reason that Anke van der Laan gives is the fact that the modern collection is too recent. She doesn’t want to select right now, because a distance is needed to revise a collection and a period in time. It is better to preserve the collection and let future colleagues 100 years from now revise the collection. In 100 years it is possible to state what was representative for that time period, but right now that is impossible.

The second reason is that a museum has to consider future visions, ideas and tastes. Future generations must have the option of exhibiting certain objects that do not receive attention now. Therefore Anke van der Laan says that she does not want to know about deaccession concerning the modern collection. ‘Just leave it’ she says.

7.3.1 Discourse Analysis

The conversation with Anke van der Laan and the statement of Karel Schampers mostly seem to be dominated by realism and rationality. In that way the conversation has certain connections to the conversation of Wilbert Weber. Both the ‘Zeeuws maritiem muZEEum’ and the ‘Frans Hals Museum’ have experienced that a certain economic perspective is necessary in more difficult times. But what in the conversation made these economic values visible?

When Karel Schampers was confronted with the bad circumstances in his depot and the lack of help from the municipality of Haarlem, he thought of a rational and efficient solution. His remark this painting ha[d] to be sacrificed in order to preserve thousands of other important objects’, tells a lot about his considerations and values. In order to build a new depot and save the museum collection, cultural and social values had to give way to economic values. According to Karel Schampers and Anke van der Laan it was the extraordinary situation that made it justifiable to deaccession for economic reasons, namely the return of the two paintings. The museum made a realistic and rational decision.
Cultural and social values were not forgotten in this decision. The two paintings were objects that didn’t fit into the collection of the museum anymore. It would not have been a loss for the museum if these two paintings were sold. It would also not have been a loss for society. The museum did require that the objects were sold to a public collection. So, cultural and social values were of importance too. It was, however, the lack of financial means that formed the decisive argument for deaccession.
Till today Karel Schampers is convinced of the fact that the sale of the two paintings would have been the right solution to the problems of the museum. Till today also this line of thought seems to be of importance inside the museum. The remark of Anke van der Laan: ‘space, time, knowledge and means are used as efficient as possible to preserve the works that really matter’, shows that realism and rationality still prevail. This does not mean that the returns of sale are in the museums interest. Karel Schampers states that the ‘[l]eading principle [..] is that the gift or permanent deposit is always preferred above sale’. It seems, however, that the museum is at least aware of the financial and managerial benefits of deaccession. Deaccession is a tool that can be used to lower the financial and managerial burdens of preserving and managing a museum collection. The fact that Anke van der Laan refers to the major restoration work that has to be done, shows that she is aware of the burdens of the collection. So, although deaccession is said to be used to improve the quality of the collection, economic values are not diminished in their policies. The museum is aware of its restricted means and on the other hand of the enormous tasks concerning the collection. When Anke van der Laan refers to the balance between ideological goals and business aligned goals at the end of the conversation, it becomes clear that this forms the red line throughout the whole conversation. The ‘Frans Hals Museum’ acknowledges the cultural values and social values of the collection, as well as the economic values of the collection.
In the case of ‘De Hallen’, however, we seem to touch upon some contradictions in the conversation. Anke van der Laan explains that she has no intentions to deaccession objects from the modern and contemporary art collections. The collections are acquired in recent years and it seems logical that she doesn’t want to make changes in it already. Nevertheless Karel Schampers stated that ‘[m]ost museums are reticent in making corrections in their collection. But why should a collection be unassailable? It is only out of fear that corrections are not made’. It seems that the ‘Frans Hals Museum’ is not totally fearless either. There are containers stocked with sculptures that are never exhibited. Most sculptures even seem to be irrelevant, Anke van der Laan notes. So, where is the realistic and rational line of thought of the museum gone in this case? It seems that social values have taken the upper hand, as Anke van der Laan explains that the museum preserves these objects in case future generations are interested in them. The question is how far should a museum go in this?
So, in the case of ‘De Hallen’, the means to maintain the collection seem to be available and consequently the economic line of thought gives way to social and cultural values. Nevertheless, the ‘Frans Hals Museum’ is a museum that enhances an economic, realistic and rationally minded thinking pattern, because they experienced what it is to have little and no means to preserve, maintain, manage and control a museum collection.

7.4 René Dekker

Collection: Animals, fossils, stones and minerals

Owner Collection: Dutch State

Function: Research

Reach: National

Financing: Subsidized, ±15% own income

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