February 10, 2011

The problems with deaccessioning as a fund raising mechanism for museums

Posted at 2:10 pm in Similar cases

In the UK, most of the major museums are prohibited from deaccessioning any of their artefacts – often by specific clauses in their governing charters. Smaller museums also have difficulty doing so, as they may struggle to get funding grants if they do. Most of the issues in the UK with regards to deaccessioning are in terms of it being used as a blocking mechanism to prevent serious debate on many restitution claims.

In the USA, the situation is very different – more museums are independent of government & are free to sell items in their collections – this however raises potential new controversies with the deaccessioning of valuable items being used as a source of quick money.

New York Times

Small Town, Big Word, Major Issue
Published: December 27, 2010

LITTLE FALLS, N.Y. — This small city up the hill from the Erie Canal is known for manufacturing paper and tea, for rooting on its Mounties at high school football games, for deposits of quartz that glint like diamonds and for the Victorian mansion that houses its 100-year-old library.

And now it’s also known locally as the place where the library director took a stand — or started a fuss, depending on your point of view — when the library board started selling historical items from its collection.

A 13-star flag and an invitation to Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural ball should never have been put up for auction, argued the director, Marietta Phillips. And she was also bothered, she said, that trustees sometimes took artifacts home, for good reason, perhaps, but without anyone’s bothering to note it on her sign-out sheet at the circulation desk.

“You can’t get your history back,” she said. “People don’t realize: once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

So Ms. Phillips, 42, this fall did what lots of people contemplate but few actually do — she quit. Then she wrote a letter in the local paper telling this town about 20 miles southeast of Utica just why she was leaving and how fast and loose she thought the board had been with its artifacts.

“Apparently, the board of trustees decided these items were not historically significant to the area and voted to have them sold at auction,” she wrote. “I have resigned from my position and accept the responsibility for the significant loss of historical material.”

Deaccessioning is the kind of word that makes eyes glaze over and can seem to be the preserve of dusty intellectuals and large museums. But it’s just a fancy name for the sale or giving away of art and artifacts by museums and other cultural organizations, and the dust-up here in this city of about 5,000 demonstrates that such debates occur in all kinds of places, big and small, where people feel protective about materials in their care.

With her personal gesture of protest in late September, Ms. Phillips stepped into a growing public controversy surrounding institutions that have sold or considered selling parts of their collections, which have been entrusted to them for the public’s benefit. Some say such sales can compromise collections, and others argue that museums, libraries and historical societies have to cull their collections periodically, particularly if there is pressure to pay their bills.

In Little Falls, library officials said they were selling things to raise money, not to cover operating costs, which institutions try to avoid, but to preserve other artifacts.

“We don’t have the space to take care of some of these items,” said Chester P. Szymanski III, the library’s president. “We’re not a museum. We’re a library.”

Ms. Phillips drew support for her decision from the Little Falls Historical Society and letters to The Herkimer Telegram and The Little Falls Times. Some wrote to say that Ms. Phillips should get her job back. A resident, Peter J. Adasek, recommended she get a raise.

“If you do not return, Ms. Phillips,” he wrote, “we have then lost another treasure.”

(Mr. Adasek also credited Ms. Phillips for improvements to the library men’s room, where he had been previously “frustrated by the wrong size paper towels being put in too large of a dispenser.”)

Some of the library trustees, though, said they thought Ms. Phillips had made much ado about nothing. Any materials that went out came back, and if they weren’t signed out, it was because the library didn’t want them returned.

“She is a very creative, energetic person,” said Linda B. Vincent, a trustee who owns an antiques center and also serves on the boards of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica and the MidYork Library System. “I think she needs to be in a different venue for that energy.”

Quitting wasn’t an easy decision for Ms. Phillips. (She now runs the office of a local roofing contractor.) But she said that she was raised to do “what’s right”; that for 20 years, she had carried in her purse a beat-up copy of the United States Constitution to remind her of personal responsibility; and that her hard-knock childhood, which included a bout with drugs and a teenage pregnancy, left her with a pretty thick skin.

A petite 5 feet 2 inches, with graying hair and rapid-fire speech inflected by her native New Hampshire, Ms. Phillips went to Utica College at 32, made the dean’s list, became managing editor of the student paper and graduated in 2004, the same year that her son, Travis, now 26, did from a community college.

She came across the historical items while going through the library’s collection of materials on its second and third floors. The 13-star flag, which is believed to have waved over Washington’s headquarters at Newburgh, N.Y., during the waning days of the American Revolution, sold on Dec. 10 in Cincinnati. But in the wake of protests prompted by Ms. Phillips’s stand, the library took the inaugural ball invitation — which had been sent to an early Little Falls family, the Petries — off the auction block.

“I didn’t realize what the response would be to that,” Ms. Vincent, the trustee, said. But she added, “We will continue to deaccession things that have no place in our library or that we can’t take care of.”

The library’s main purpose is serving the “educational, social and cultural needs of the community,” Ms. Vincent said. “It has nothing to do with preserving stuff.”

Michael J. Borges, the executive director of the New York Library Association, said, “If there was enough funding for libraries, these libraries wouldn’t have to sell off their historic assets.”

For Ms. Phillips, who was director for two years, much of the problem was the way the trustees took things without creating a record.

For her part, Ms. Vincent said that she took home “a box of stuff to spread it out and see what was there” and she added that Mr. Szymanski had taken home Civil War money to put in sleeves and look up the value.

“Yes, some of it came in and out of the building,” she said. “It all came back.”

Ms. Phillips said Ms. Vincent’s approach was haphazard and lacked the requisite accountability.

“She has no business taking library property,” Ms. Phillips said. “She thinks she’s the queen of the world and she doesn’t have to abide by anybody’s rules.”

Since Ms. Phillips’s departure, the Little Falls Library has updated its deaccession policy to make more explicit that proceeds will not be used for operating expenses and to spell out procedures. (“Objects that are eligible for deaccessioning are to be recorded on a deaccessioning worksheet.”)

“I don’t think they’re going to be willy-nilly selling anything in the future,” said David Burleson, a trustee at the historical society. “There’s more citizen involvement.”

Ms. Phillips said she would like to return to the library field. She said she missed giving computer classes to older residents, planning literary events and interacting with children. But she added that she had no regrets.

“I got to a point in my life where I don’t let people dictate what I do — I don’t let them define me,” she said. “That’s why I won’t sit and be quiet. I spent a lot of years being quiet. I’m not that way anymore.”

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