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Deaccessioning and Capitalization of Collections

by John Dichtl, President and CEO, AASLH on

In late July, news broke in The New York Times, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio about the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, deciding to deaccession forty works of art, thrusting the topic of museum collection policies, funding, and  public trust once again into the national spotlight. The Berkshire Museum issued a press release on July 24 announcing they were deaccessioning the art and disposing of the collection via public auction in order to fund “a bold financial strategy designed to properly capitalize the institution” as they prepare for a new direction for their institution.

The press release states: “Specifically designed to better serve the wider Berkshire community, the Museum’s New Vision will result in an innovative twenty-first century institution. Realization of this ambitious plan is expected to cost $20 million; in addition the Museum will create a new endowment of at least $40 million in order to provide financial stability for the future. These initiatives will be largely funded through the sale of artworks in the Museum’s collection, which have been deemed no longer essential to the Museum’s new interdisciplinary programs.”

This statement resulted in a large amount of press and discussion both in the community served by the museum and in the museum field as a whole. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) issued a rare joint public statement opposing the actions proposed by the museum. The museum then issued a statement on the statement, reaffirming their commitment to moving forward with the sale.

While we appreciate the thoughtful process that the Berkshire Museum has used to assess their situation, AASLH agrees with our colleagues at AAM and AAMD that the plan outlined by the Berkshire Museum does not conform to recognized standards related to deaccessioning and acceptable use of funds derived from the sale of collections.  We urge them to reconsider their current plan.

While this case has become a national story, the question of ethical deaccessioning is one that the staff at AASLH receive on a regular basis. In light of the situation unfolding in Massachusetts, AASLH staff want to provide guidance about deaccessioning for those who work in history organizations to help you understand the controversy with the Berkshire Museum and to give you the opportunity to think about your institution’s policy on deaccessioning.

The question of deaccessioning is complex and often confusing for many institutions. As nonprofit organizations, government entities, or public/private partnerships, we hold our collections in the public trust. This places great responsibility on us when our institutions decide to remove donated collection items entrusted to us. History organizations must have clear policies and procedures in place to avoid damaging the public trust with regard to our collections.

Below you will find resources from AASLH to help you better understand the topic of deaccessioning and how to ethically address it in your institution.

Resources Regarding Deaccessioning and Capitalization of Collections

AASLH addresses these issues in its Statement of Professional Standards and Ethics, which is available on our website. It states:

  • Historical resources shall not be capitalized or treated as financial assets.
  • Collections shall not be deaccessioned or disposed of in order to provide financial support for institutional operations, or any reason other than direct care, preservation, or acquisition of collections as defined by institutional policy. Institutions, particularly house museums and sites, may choose to accession their contributing (being accessible to and interpreted for the public) buildings and landscapes. Because the distinction between building maintenance and preservation is easily blurred, the museum should delineate the two in its policy. In this case, any contributing artifacts that are deaccessioned, the proceeds can be available for direct care and preservation of objects, archives, buildings, archaeological sites, and cultural landscapes that provide public benefit as outlined/defined in their collections policy.

The Standards and Ethics Committee published a white paper on The Capitalization of Collections in 2003. They also published a white paper dealing with deaccessioning, “When a History Museum Closes.” The American Alliance of Museums issued a white paper in April 2016 on Direct Care of Collections: Ethics, Guidelines, and Recommendations. An AASLH representative participated in the task force that authored the white paper, as did other organizations from throughout the museum community.

The Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations (StEPs) also addresses this topic in the section on Stewardship of Collections and identifies the “use of funds from deaccessioning for anything other than acquisition of new collections or direct care and conservation of existing collections” as an unacceptable practice.

Sample Deaccessioning Policies are available for you to download and adapt for your institution:

AASLH has also held several webinars and sessions dealing with this difficult topic. Recordings are available free for download through September 30 with the promo code DEACCESSION17.

Finally, you might find helpful this blog post by Laura McDowell on steps to deaccessioning at a small museum and this Technical Leaflet by Alli Rico on deaccessioning and abandoned property.

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