Museums, values & deaccession

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‘Efficiency is very important’

‘Naturalis’ is an interesting and extraordinary museum with its collection of 15 million natural history objects. The ‘tower’ in which these objects are preserved must be gigantic, certainly when adjunct-director René Dekker tells me that there is still space for another 30 years of growth. Spatial issues cannot be at stake in ‘Naturalis’ therefore, but does this provide the museum a safe conduct to preserve everything in their reach?

According to René Dekker, this was the case in the past. Everything was preserved. Preceding directors were mostly biologists, who were solely concerned with the collection and with preserving all that they could lay their hands on. Since ‘Naturalis’ moved to the new building, the type of directors hired, changed from biologists concerned with the content of the museum to managers concerned with the organization of the museum. The current director and adjunct-directors do no longer only have knowledge about the natural history objects in the museum. They have managerial and organizational skills. Strolling through the depot, they are able to ask questions like ‘can’t we get rid of something?’.
René Dekker experiences this as rightful questions. The current director asked him, for instance, why a dusty old elephant and a dusty old giraffe were preserved in the depot. These two animals take up a lot of space. Space that could be used for other parts of the collection, like the insects. Here deaccession would be a useful tool to create a more efficient use of space. Deaccession is only used by ‘Naturalis’, however, when the objects have no value to the museum anymore. So, do the elephant and giraffe have scientific value, cultural value, presentation value, education value or strategic value for the position of the museum?

In the case of the giraffe, there might be an interesting story of cultural historic value behind it. The story goes that the giraffe was brought to land in Marseille and walked all the way to Paris. It was one of the first giraffes that could be seen by the people of Europe. If this story can be verified, the giraffe is an interesting object. It might, however, be more interesting to France. So, the question is should ‘Naturalis’ preserve it, should France preserve it or should it be destroyed anyway? This is how all objects should be looked at according to René Dekker. This is difficult, however, when you have a collection of 15 million objects.

This is where the upcoming fusion comes in handy. In 2014 ‘Naturalis’, ‘Nationaal Herbarium Nederland’ and the ‘Zoölogisch Museum Amsterdam’ will be unified in one ‘Nederlands Centrum voor Biodiversiteit’. Because of the fusion all the collections will move to a new building and will be integrated into one large collection. During this moving and integrating it is possible to check the objects and judge if they should be preserved or deaccessioned. In many cases deaccession is used when objects lack data. Entire parts of the collection are deaccessioned when nothing is done with it anymore and when it is of no interest for future research. This is also strongly influenced by what the museum sees as its core business, René Dekker explains. Recently the museum deaccessioned a large educational collection of thousands of animals. This collection was used to provide schools, museums and other institutions with set up animals. When the museum realized that one employee of the museum had a fulltime job by driving to these organizations and delivering animals, the collection was deaccessioned. Education is not the core task of the museum; the core task is scientific research. The time this employee spends on education could better be used for the core tasks of the museum. ‘This is how you peel of the shells till you reach the core. In the past we did all kinds of things on the side’.
The educational collection was deaccessioned through the ‘replacement-database’. The objects were offered to other museums, which could receive the objects for free. For ‘Naturalis’ it was not an option to sell the objects, because through the ‘replacement-database’ the objects would end up in another state collection. The Dutch state remained the owner of the collection. But René Dekker says, ‘when no other state collection would have been interested, you could indeed talk about it’. However, the sale of natural history objects is tricky. You must be careful with selling animals, because it could become trade. Handling costs, on the other hand, can be charged. The museum chose, however, not to.

Deaccession through the ‘replacement-database’ is not the regular procedure in ‘Naturalis’. René Dekker prefers deaccession through exchange. If an animal no longer fits into the collection and, for instance, Paris would be interested, he would tell Paris they could have it. But when the truck drives back to the Netherlands he would require that they send him back the objects that do not fit in their collection anymore and that are interesting for ‘Naturalis’. He prefers this collegial attitude towards each other.

In many cases deaccession also means destroying the objects. When the objects have no museological value anymore, the objects must be destroyed. They cannot be sold on the market, because most animals and other natural history objects are protected by the Dutch laws, like the ‘Nederlandse Flora en Fauna Wet’, from trade and ending up in private hands. ‘Naturalis’ is obliged to destroy these objects.
Interesting is that in ‘Naturalis’ deaccession is part of a much wider approach to improve the efficiency in the museum. For René Dekker efficiency is of major importance. During the conversation he refers to multiple examples of improvement of the efficiency.

First, the museum receives many gifts and legacies. They are glad to receive these, but they only want what is interesting for the collection. ‘We only preserve the gilt on the gingerbread’. In the past they did accept whole collections of amateurs with the requirements to keep the collection together as, for instance, ‘the collection Jansen’. This is no longer done by the museum, because it is inefficient. It costs a lot of money and it is unhandy for research. Gifts and legacies are now integrated in the whole collection.

The collection of ‘Naturalis’ is used for research. To verify former research results the objects that are used for research should be preserved. ‘The question is if everything should be preserved?Different from in the past, the museum now requires that only a limited sample of researched animals is preserved. When researchers return from the field and bring in 100 similar animals, they can describe and measure all hundred, but they cannot preserve all 100. They should reduce the objects to a representative sample that doesn’t exist of 90 animals and preferably not 80 too, but something in the order of 10 or 20. This way selection and deaccession start at the front. ‘This is efficiency development’, says René Dekker. It lessens the burdens on the depot and on the registration of the objects.

More is done in this area. The collection preserved in alcohol is stocked in glass cylinders, hermetically covered with glass and hot wax to keep the air out of it. Opening these cylinders is easy, but closing them with the hot wax takes half an hour. This is very inefficient. ‘When a researcher opens 10, 20, 30 or 40 cylinders, I loose a preservation-employee for a week. The cylinders might be beautiful and they might belong to this kind of collections, but that does not convince me. We use preserving jars now. First with those rubber rings, but they dry out and break, so now we use silicone rings. Works perfect. Open in a second and closed in a second. Takes no time anymore.’ Each cylinder that is opened now is therefore replaced by a preserving jar. With this many half hours are won in the future. This is where it is all about, explains René Dekker, ‘where can we profit in time, space, money and labour?’.

Efficiency can also be reached by denying certain guests in the depot. The depot of ‘Naturalis’ is open for researchers, but no longer for all artists. The experience is that artists do not know how to handle the animals and therefore a preservation-employee is needed to guide the artists. This means that René Dekker again looses one of his employees for a couple of hours or a whole day. Artists that do want to visit the depot now are charged for it. This way René Dekker is compensated for the loss of his employee.

To win space the museum is also busy with taking the set up animals apart. In the past all animals were set up and preserved like that in the depot. What is left now in the depot are boxes of bones piled up, instead of numerous set up pigs, set up cheeps, set up dears and so on standing next to each other taking up a lot of space. This concentration is another efficiency development in ‘Naturalis’.

An important efficiency development will also be the fusion of ‘Naturalis’. Five collections will be brought together. As mentioned before, during this process deaccession will be used to create a coherent collection. The collection of Amsterdam, however, will probably arrive at ‘Naturalis’ sooner. In order to organize this, the museum will temporarily use their 30 years of growing space in the depot for the storage of this collection. This seems problematic, but René Dekker explains that it is actually efficient.

The fusion allows the museum to integrate, concentrate and fill up lost space. ‘For instance, we have a drawer with 60 sparrows and Amsterdam has a drawer with 30 sparrows, which are both drawers with space to grow. Put these together and a lot of volume disappears. This is a huge efficiency development’.

The same is true for employees. ‘Naturalis’ has two men managing 250.000 birds. Amsterdam has one person managing 60.000 birds. Putting these birds together is enlarging the collection, but enlarging it with more of the same. Therefore it is still manageable and controllable. Keeping three men for a collection that has not become much larger is useless, so one of these employees can be used somewhere else. This is efficient.

The fusion also includes the build of a new depot. Because of the new construction ‘Naturalis’ is able to put in new techniques that make the depot and the management of the collection more efficient. René Dekker tells me that he and his colleagues recently visited the stock of the corporation Nissan, just to see what they could learn from that. In the stock of Nissan everything is robotized and done by machines. The museum is now trying to incorporate this in their new depot too. For instance, in the new depot the collection of the ‘Herbarium’ will be added. Right now the ‘Herbarium’ has a large freezer in which hundreds of boxes are piled up each week by two employees. These boxes are left there for a week, then taken out of the freezer and next the freezer is stocked with new boxes again. This is a process that is needed every year and it takes a lot of time. Consequently there are plans to build a freezer above rails in the new depot. Each five days the boxes that are on the rails will move a little bit further and receive the right treatment. René Dekker admits that this costs a lot of money, but it costs even more to have two employees busy with this all the time. It is more efficient to automatize this process.

One of the reasons why René Dekker organizes things more efficient is due to the fact that this makes him able to do more with the money he receives from the government. Both in 2003 and 2005 the museum went through a process of reorganization. This resulted in fewer hands to do the same work. Efficiency is therefore of major importance. This while the natural historic world was not quite familiar with this concept. René Dekker explains that the natural historic world has always been more good-natured and easy-going. Nevertheless he states: ‘I look at a museum just as a company’.
7.4.1 Discourse Analysis

What do we learn from the conversation with René Dekker? What is important for ‘Naturalis’; what does René Dekker value?

Already at the beginning of the conversation it is remarkable how many times René Dekker refers to the efficiency inside the museum. Without asking any questions in this direction, he starts to explain the importance of efficiency. As a red line through his story this economic value keeps coming back. You can feel that he is proud of his accomplishments in this area. Space is used in the most optimal way, employees only contribute to the core tasks of the museum, preservation is practiced with modern and fast techniques and only the most interesting objects are kept in the depot. Sometimes cultural values even have to give way to economic values in this process of improving the efficiency. The fact that René Dekker replaced the cylinders by preservation jars, shows us that economic values are more important than cultural values. Although the cylinders are beautiful and belong to those collections, René Dekker prefers the faster, more efficient and easier method of conservation. For him it is all about ‘where can we profit in time, space, money and labour?’. This is a remarkable economic approach for an adjunct-director Collection at a state museum.
Social and cultural values are not overlooked however. Deaccession, for instance, is used to improve the efficiency concerning space, registration and labour. Nevertheless, deaccession is only practiced when an object or part of the collection has absolutely no value to the museum anymore. The question ‘can’t we get rid of something?’ is practical and efficient, but this is not the only criterion for deaccession. Objects cannot be deaccessioned if they still have scientific value, cultural value, presentation value, education value or strategic value for the museum. Scientific value is important in ‘Naturalis’, because scientific research is one of their core tasks.
Interesting is that deaccessioned objects are not sold to other museums, but transferred as a gift. This is understandable, because the objects are owned by the Dutch state and it is not in their interest to sell these objects to other state owned or subsidized museums. Nevertheless, René Dekker states that charging handling costs would not be unreasonable. ‘Naturalis’ doesn’t do this however. Here we seem to touch upon an inefficient way of dealing with the economic value of their objects and the compensation the museum is able to ask for all the time and labour that is put into deaccessioning their objects. ‘Naturalis’ is not receiving any return for the deaccessioned objects. This while René Dekker told me that he is constantly searching for project money to continue with the digital registration of the collection, which is now finished for only 10% of the total collection.
Nevertheless, René Dekker seems to approach the museum and the processes in the museum just like any other company. The interesting story about him and his colleagues visiting the stock of Nissan, shows that ‘Naturalis’ is able to look further than the museum field and is willing to compare itself to other companies. This is confirmed by the remark of René Dekker: ‘I look at a museum just as a company’. An interesting question is why does he do this? Do economic values, social values or cultural values lead him to this approach?
It is possible that efficiency is such a strong keyword in René Dekker’s policy, because he is a manager type of director concerned more with the organization and economic aspects of the museum. René Dekker firmly rejects the point of view of former biologist-directors, who wanted to preserve everything. It is interesting to hear how important the director of a museum is for the way the collection is seen and treated. But is it all about economic values and efficiency for René Dekker?

I would say that it is all about the collection. It is important for René Dekker to organize everything as efficient as possible, so he can make the collection of ‘Naturalis’ a top collection. For instance, a way to accomplish this is by using the money he receives from the government in the most optimal and efficient way.

He explains that it has nothing to do with social values and giving the Dutch taxpayer something worthy back for their tax money. It also has nothing to do with being efficient and rationally minded, solely to run the museum as best as possible.

No, if René Dekker uses the money in the most optimal way, he is able to do more with the money for his collection. This suggests that in the end René Dekker is solely concerned with the collection and making the collection flourish by organizing the museum more efficient. Efficiency is a tool to accomplish other values than economic values.

7.5 Jan Teeuwisse

Collection: Modern and contemporary international sculptures

Owner Collection: Museum Beelden aan Zee

Reach: Local

Financing: Private funding

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Museum Beelden aan Zee’

Art does not exist to be put into storage’
Jan Teeuwisse is an art historian and since 2002 he is the director of the private museum ‘Museum Beelden aan Zee’ in Scheveningen. With great affection he tells me about the history of the museum and the collectors-couple Theo and Lida Scholten. In the sixties Theo and Lida Scholten began to collect sculptures. First these were mostly modern Dutch sculptures, but soon their collection expanded and their acquisitions became more international. All kinds of bronze, wooden, stone, plaster and leather sculptures decorated their house and garden. Theo Scholten had a high position at the company Robeco. As a business professional and art lover he soon became active in the boards of different museums. He got acquainted with the art world and in 1994 the collectors-couple decided to build their own museum.
Right now the museum possesses more than a thousand sculptures. The influence of Theo and Lida Scholten on the museum and the collection is still present. Theo and Lida Scholten managed the museum till 2002 and after that they kept advising Jan Teeuwisse. Theo Scholten past away in 2005, but the 86 year old Lida Scholten is still working in the museum and accompanies Jan Teeuwisse to fairs, galleries and so on. Their own particular philosophy is also still noticeable in the museum. This is mostly determined by the building of the museum, which is spacious and open for influences from outside. The building was designed by the architect Wim Quist and mirrors the relaxed and easygoing way in which the collectors-couple handled their collection. Gloves, insurances and other measures were not thought to be necessary. Their children even used the sculptures in the garden as goalposts. In ‘Museum Beelden aan Zee’ you are therefore allowed to touch most of the sculptures. As Jan Teeuwisse says ‘sculptures only become more beautiful when they are touched a lot. [..] I do not mind if people touch our own sculptures. Everybody wants to, everybody does it. Sculptures are tactile. [..] Sculptures are not only their to be watched’. The sculptures are also exposed to the sea air, the sun and the wind. There is no climate system in the museum and when I walked through it all the doors and windows were open and the sun was shining on the sculptures. The interaction between inside and outside is very special in this museum.
Soon after the museum was opened Theo and Lida Scholten noticed that they had a depot-problem. Sculptures are big and take in a lot of space. Therefore they built a new depot under the patio. Now the museum has one small depot, one large depot and one depot outside the museum. Consequently Jan Teeuwisse does not have to worry about a lack of space right now. This is also caused by the open attitude of the museum towards giving their sculptures in deposit. ‘Museum Beelden aan Zee’ has sculptures in the gardens of ‘Paleis Soestdijk’, ‘Havixhorst’, ‘Singer Museum’ and ‘Steigenberger Kurhaus Hotel’ and in the hall of the ‘Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie’. Instead of being wasted in the depots, taking in a lot of space and causing depot-problems, these sculptures are now exposed. This is important for Jan Teeuwisse. He regrets that many of his sculptures cannot be seen. By giving a part of his collection in deposit, this is solved. For Jan Teeuwisse it is also the museums responsibility to make its works visible. A museum is responsible for its artworks and for the mental heritage of the artists. ‘Art does not exist to be put into storage’.

He does not understand therefore, that many other museums behave so difficult when it concerns deposit. ‘That is a bad situation. Museums, like the ‘Stedelijk Museum’ that is closed now, manage collections that we have paid for. We recently had an exhibition with a sculptor who turned 90 and the most important part of his collection was in the ‘Stedelijk’. He called the director of the ‘Stedelijk’ but he did not get it, while it was obvious that this would be his last big exhibition. But why didn’t he get it.. simply because they did not feel like getting all of his works out of the depot. [..] Museums hurt each other much’.

Jan Teeuwisse does acknowledge that museums should be critical in giving their works in deposit. Objects should be treated professionally and used respectfully, but most of all deposits are publicity for a museum. As the director of a private museum Jan Teeuwisse sees his museum as a ‘store’. He has to make money and get the public in. The objects that the museum gives in deposit are able to attract people to the museum and by designing and decorating the gardens of ‘Paleis Soestdijk’ and the other organizations the museum earns money. As a private museum ‘Museum Beelden aan Zee’ is therefore very active in this kind of things. For their exhibitions the museum also asks many works in deposit from other museums and private collectors. Their ‘exhibition-machine’, as Jan Teeuwisse calls it, attracts the public. It is expensive, but it is thé way to get the people in. That is why, several years ago, Theo Scholten spent millions of euro’s on 30 large sculptures outside on the boulevard-side of the museum. These sculptures should attract the many tourists that visit Scheveningen to the museum. Unfortunately the threshold to enter the museum is still to high for the tourists on the beach. Nevertheless, the museum attracts 50.000 to 60.000 visitors per year. This while the museum has only 7 paid employees. The rest of the work is done by the 150 volunteers. In this way the museum saves a lot of money.

At the same time all these volunteers create an unique atmosphere. You can see that these people really care. They want to inform you, teach you and show you the whole museum. Walking through the museum they are everywhere, paying good attention to all the visitors and watching if everything goes well. This affirms how Jan Teeuwisse speaks about his museum; a place that takes good care of its sculptures and which is concerned with the content. The museum does want to generate money, but it are the exhibitions where most of the money goes to, not the pr and marketing. The museum does rent spaces to companies, but it is not all about the money, they do want to offer the companies some cultural content.

The collection of the museum is therefore most important. Half of the building is always reserved for their own collection. When exhibitions are made and deposits are received, the museum tries to fit in some pieces from their own collection. ‘It is a handy stock to draw from’.
The expansion of the collection goes slowly. After the acquisition of the sculptures on the boulevard the budget of the museum has been lower. Jan Teeuwisse acquires only a few sculptures per year. He does this with great care and he only acquires objects of which he is certain that they will be exposed or will have pr-value for the museum. He does not buy works to end up in the depot immediately; ‘‘Museum Beelden aan Zee’ is no archive or museum that collects the entire sculpture history’.

The collection now exists of many unique interesting sculptures, but as in any collection, says Jan Teeuwisse, there are objects with which the museum cannot do anything. A private collection is nice, because acquisitions often happen spontaneously. These sudden acquisitions can be fortunate, like the sculpture Theo and Lida Scholten bought at an auction and that turned out to be one of the best sculptures of Zadkine. But on the other hand the collectors-couple also bought certain uninteresting and, retrospectively, awful objects. ‘That way I have certain things of which I think well…’

This unless Theo and Lida Scholten took a good look at their collection before putting it into the museum. Most of the sculptures turned out to fit in the theme ‘human figure’ and until today this is the red line throughout the whole collection. When Theo and Lida Scholten decided this would be the main theme, they deaccessioned all the animal sculptures. These sculptures were divided among their children and family. So the first deaccession-round was in 1994. When Theo Scholten died in 2005 Lida Scholten moved from Scheveningen to Bunnik. Jan Teeuwisse: ‘then at a certain moment I said to her that it was weird that whole her life she had been surrounded by these sculptures and now she had nothing anymore, because it was all in the museum and in the depots’. Therefore the museum decided to give back all the more abstract sculptures, which she wanted to have and which the museum didn’t exhibit anymore. She did object a little of course, because she is so committed to the museum, but eventually the museum deaccessioned part of the collection by giving the sculptures back to Lida Scholten.
One of the reasons that ‘Museum Beelden aan Zee’ had no intention to sell the objects that were ready for deaccession, is that at an auction sculptures do not sell. Sculptures generate relatively little money. Christie’s organized a few auctions especially for sculptures, but they quitted very soon because too little sculptures were supplied and demanded. ‘There is no market for sculptures’. If Jan Teeuwisse would want to generate money with selling sculptures he would have to sell the diamonds in his collection. This of course is no option. Nevertheless, he still has certain sculptures that he would want to get rid of. These are sculptures that will never be exposed during his time in the museum or sculptures that take in a lot of space. Still it is better not to sell them, because the loss would be bigger. These sculptures are simply given in deposit, sometimes for very long periods of time. ‘Deaccession through sale does not make much sense for us’.

Jan Teeuwisse also tells that in certain cases these sculptures of less interest and quality could actually be used. ‘The funny thing is that if you collect within a certain discipline, like sculptures, and within a certain theme, like human figures, collectors go and search for boundaries’. Consequently the museum possesses sculptures of leather and even lego-blocks. For a museum that wants to attract a diverse public, it is handy to have such diversity in objects. Then it doesn’t matter whether these sculptures are of high quality or not.

Jan Teeuwisse also points me at the fact that depot-problems can be solved. He sees them as technical problems for which solutions can be found when it is needed. Some time ago ‘Museum Beelden aan Zee’ got the idea to stock all their objects at special ‘rental-depots’. The empty depots in the museum itself could then be used as new exhibition spaces, which could attract more visitors and could generate more money. These ‘rental-depots’ were, however, too expensive, so the idea was abandoned. But in the port of Scheveningen there are many empty containers that can be rented for cheap prices. There is no climate system in such a container, but it is a solution. Therefore Jan Teeuwisse would never sell his sculptures. Space-problems can be solved and selling sculptures is not profitable.

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