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Flickr - USCapitol - AOC Registrar Examines Artifacts Deaccessioning is the process by which a work of art or other object is permanently removed from a museum's collection to sell it or otherwise dispose of it.

Table of contents
  1. Deaccession policy
  2. Decision process
  3. Deaccession and museum ethics
  4. Views on deaccessioning

Deaccession policy

The process undertaken by a museum to deaccession a work involves several steps that are usually laid out in a museum's collection management policy. The terms under which an object may be considered for removal, as well as the individuals with the authority to approve the process are outlined in the deaccession section of this article. Additionally, this section lays out the legal restrictions and ethical considerations associated with removal of the object and the types of disposal that are appropriate based on the reason for the deaccession.

Decision process

Each museum establishes its own method and workflow for the deaccession process according to its organizational structure. However all object deaccessioning involves the two processing steps of deaccession and disposal.

The process begins with the curator creating a document called a "statement of justification," which outlines their decision criteria and reasoning for presenting the work as a possible deaccession. To determine if a work should be deaccessioned from a museum's collection, a curator or registrar completes and documents a series of justification steps and then present their findings to the museum director and governing board for final approval.

Deaccession criteria

There are a number of reasons why deaccessioning might be considered. The following is a typical list of criteria for deaccession and disposal: Deaccession justification steps

The typical steps that need to be taken to justify the deaccession and disposal of the work include: Disposal

Disposal is defined as the transfer of ownership by the museum after a work has been deaccessioned. Following approval of deaccession from the governing board and/or the CEO/museum director, the work is disposed of and the title of ownership is completely transferred away from the museum or terminated. The method chosen is determined by the physical condition of the work, the intrinsic value or cultural value of the work and extrinsic value or monetary value of the work. With all methods of disposal, museums are charged to maintain and retain all records of the object, its deaccession and disposal.

The process of disposal is completed through the following methods:
Deaccession and museum ethics

Several professional museum associations have drafted codes of ethics governing the practice of deaccession. Two majors areas of ethical concern that are common in these codes of ethics are the prohibition of sale or transfer of collection items to museum trustees, staff, board members, or their relatives and the need to restrict the use of proceeds from any works disposed of via sale or auction.

The first of these ethical concerns is rather straightforward. The second has become a point of contention in recent years since museums and cities, like Detroit, have been struggling with financial shortfalls.

According to the Association of Art Museum Directors: "Funds received from the disposal of a deaccessioned work shall not be used for operations or capital expenses. Such funds, including any earnings and appreciation thereon, may be used only for the acquisition of works in a manner consistent with the museum's policy on the use of restricted acquisition funds." This stipulation was relaxed in April 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its negative impact on museum revenues, permitting some degree of deaccession through 2022 to "support the direct care of the museum's collection".

According to the American Association of Museums: "Proceeds from the sale of nonliving collections are to be used consistent with the established standards of the museum's discipline, but in no event shall they be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections."

According to the AASLH (the American Association for State and Local History): "Collections shall not be deaccessioned or disposed of in order to provide financial support for institutional operations, facilities maintenance, or any reason other than the preservation or acquisition of collections."

According to the International Council of Museums: Proceeds should be applied solely to the purchase of additions to museum collections.

These associations have each determined to their own degree that all proceeds from sale or auction should be restricted to the future acquisition of collection objects and/ or to the ongoing maintenance of current collection holdings. Their decision and perspective on the practice of deaccession reflects a long-term view of museum collections as items held in public trust and preserved for access, appreciation, education, and enjoyment of not only today's public but the future public. See public trust doctrine.

An example of a recent controversy over deaccessioning was Northampton Museum and Art Gallery's sale of its ancient Egyptian statue of Sekhemka to an unnamed buyer despite protests from local residents and the Egyptian government. In 2014, Arts Council England deleted the museum from its accredited list.

Views on deaccessioning

Deaccessioning is a controversial topic and activity, with diverging opinions from artists, arts professionals and the general public. Some commentators, such as Donn Zaretsky of The Art Law Blog critique the notion of "the public trust" and argue that deaccessioning rules should probably be thrown out altogether. Others, such as Susan Taylor, director of the New Orleans Museum of Art and the AAMD's current president, believes that proceeds from the sale or funds from the deaccession can only be used to buy other works of art.

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