What Do You Mean Museums Aren’t Forever? The Whats and Whys of Deaccessioning

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If you’re into museums and you’re into movies, you probably have a special place in your heart for Toy Story 2. After all, what greater summary of museum work could there be than Kelsey Grammar’s line, “You can go back, or you can stay with us and last forever. You’ll be adored by children for generations.”

To be in a museum is to be cherished for all time, after all. Or is it?

First of all, if Woody the cowboy goes to the museum, he’s probably spending a lot of time in storage; like icebergs, museums have a lot going on under the surface and only a fraction of our collection ever makes it on exhibit. Some items will only ever be useful for research and even with social media giving us another tool to showcase our collection, there are probably things that will never see the light of day.

But secondly, to be a museum piece doesn’t necessarily mean to be preserved forever. Museums do sometimes go through their collections and get rid of certain items, in a process called deaccessioning. Let’s talk a little bit about how that works.

Volunteer Elyse Bell packages up deaccessioned items heading for their new home at the Halifax Army Museum.

To talk about deaccessioning, we first have to talk about accessioning. So, what does the word “accession” mean? Put simply, it’s the process of making an item part of a museum’s permanent collection. That involves physically placing the item in the museum, of course, but it also involves a lot of paperwork and legality. The museum has to make sure it has clear legal title to the item, usually in the form of having a donor sign a gift agreement, and has to catalogue the item into its system with its own special tracking number (called an accession number). If you’re ever seen an item on exhibit with a small number peeking out from the underside, what you’ve probably spotted is its accession number.

Accessioning is how a museum says, “This item is special and this item belongs to us.” It also confers certain responsibilities on the museum.

If someone gives me a book, it’s my book from that point forward. I can put it on a shelf, chuck it in a box at the back of my closet, throw it off the roof, sell it on Kijiji. I don’t have to track it or take care of it to any particular standards.

But things are different for items that have been accessioned. An accessioned item has to be cared for to the highest possible standards. It needs to be in a stable environment, it needs to be carefully stored in a secure place, and we always need to know where it is. And when we want to get rid of it, we can’t just toss it in the dumpster out back. Instead, we need to reverse the accessioning process through deaccessioning.

Deaccessioning is the formal removal of an item from a museum’s permanent collection. The important thing to know about deaccessioning is that it’s mostly about paperwork and about status. An item can be deaccessioned without moving from its spot on a shelf. Physical removal of the item is a different and related process, called disposal (disposal in this case doesn’t translate to “garbage,” it just means putting the object somewhere else). We can deaccession items and not dispose of them, but a museum should never dispose of an item without deaccessioning it.

Not part of the deaccessioning process.

It’s important to note that not every item in a museum is part of the collection. Things like props, furniture, and office supplies don’t get accession numbers. I don’t need to deaccession my pen when it runs dry, I can just toss it in the trash.

So why do museums deaccession their items?

There are a lot of reasons, but it can basically be boiled down to one: resources aren’t infinite. No museum has unlimited storage space, infinite personnel, or infinite money. Every item in the collection requires at least a little space, requires staff time to catalogue, track, and care for it, and may require money in the form of conservation or other supportive supplies. Every item in a museum collection has a cost and, therefore, has to “earn its keep,” as the saying goes. Regularly assessing the collection and deaccessioning items that don’t fit or are taking up too many resources is an important part of making sure that the collection is well looked after and that the museum is able to effectively tell its story.

Deaccessioning decisions are not made alone. Every museum has a process involving multiple people. At the Museum of Health Care at Kingston, I make the decisions about what to deaccession, but it’s not a solitary choice. I’ll get advice from other members of staff, chiefly the collections manager, Kathy Karkut (who I’ll freely admit knows the collection far better than I do!). Once I’ve made my final decision, it doesn’t stop there. I’ll present the items and rationale to our Programming and Collections Committee. Once I get the nod from them, it becomes a Board decision on whether or not an item should be deaccessioned. Having many eyes on the deaccession list ensures that the museum makes smart, objective, defensible decisions about deaccessioning.

Once an item has been deaccessioned, we turn to disposal. In almost every case, this doesn’t mean it goes in the garbage. Museums want to keep their objects in the public trust. In fact, when the Museum of Health Care is deciding where a deaccessioned object is best suited to go, sometimes it won’t even leave the building. We have often placed deaccessioned items into our own Education Collection. An Education Collection is a collection of objects used, as the name suggests, for education. The rules are more lax for these objects; they are not stored as securely or carefully and many of them can be touched by members of the public. If an item is in good shape and is safe for handling, it may make its way into the Education Collection.

Scarificator, circa 1880 – 1900. From the Education Collection of the Museum of Health Care at Kingston. Its accession number in black on white background (E20.045)

For instance, this scarificator was deaccessioned not too long ago for the Education Collection (this particular object only Museum staff handle, but it gets showed off a lot).

 There’s nothing wrong with it, we just have a bunch of the same model in the permanent collection, so it was a great candidate to go somewhere it could serve as a teaching tool.

If an object isn’t suitable for the Education collection, our first step will be to offer it around to other museums; sometimes at the Museum of Health Care, we won’t even go through the deaccessioning process unless we know the item already has a home to go to.

Deaccessioning is often for the object’s benefit, too. It’s not uncommon at all for a museum to decide that an object is a better fit for someone else’s collection. Once in a blue moon, museums might compete against each other but we’re mostly pretty cooperative. It can, however, be hard to determine where an object is most thematically suitable. Does an innovative new machine for blood transfusion belong to the history of medicine or the history of science and technology?

There are lots of ways we decide. First of all, we might compare our respective collections. If we have twelve World War I Nursing Sister uniforms and a military museum has zero, it makes sense to deaccession one to give to them. We get a little more space, the military museum gets something new to display, and the uniform goes somewhere more people will see it, increasing access to this part of Canada’s heritage.

Gary Melville at the Army Museum in Halifax unboxes some deaccessioned items from the Museum of Health Care

We also might decide based on our respective skills. One of our primary goals is to make sure the objects are in the best possible hands. Maybe that apothecary’s record book is more relevant to our museum, but the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library has a book conservator on site so we might hand it over to them anyway. An object that might have started to rot after five years in our collection without a specialist’s attention is now going to last for decades.

If we can’t find a home for an object at a museum or another public institution, we might turn to selling it. This isn’t ideal, but it can be necessary if the object simply doesn’t fit in a museum collection anywhere. The best method of sale is usually public auction, but sometimes museums work with reputable private dealers. Museums typically try to be as transparent about these things as possible and an arms’ length seller helps with propriety. 

The goal for any museum object sale shouldn’t be to make money. The money is secondary and most museums have pretty strict rules about what we can spend it on. For a lot of museums, the Museum of Health Care included, money from the collection goes to the collection. We could spend it on conservation supplies or shelving or even new objects, but we can’t spend it on our endowment fund or an exhibit or throwing a really cool party. That helps to ensure that we’re making measured decisions about whether or not an object should be sold.

This is important because museums have to consider their reputations when selling items. Typically that doesn’t come up for us; when we’ve sold something, it’s because it’s not unique or special enough for our collection or anyone else’s so no one is very bothered. But other museums have been sanctioned and even lost their accreditation for selling collection pieces they shouldn’t have, typically big ticket items they explicitly sold because they wanted funding. Yikes!

So if money isn’t the motivator, why sell your objects? Well, first of all, we don’t sell for money but the money is nice. Sometimes an object is not so valuable to a museum – we’ve got twelve of this exact model of sputum flask and so does every other institution we’ve contacted – but it can mean a lot to a private collector. The museum frees up some shelf space and tosses a few bucks into the collections maintenance fund and a citizen gets a neat object. Everybody wins!

That covers most of the objects that are deaccessioned. But not every object goes to a new home. It’s true that disposal doesn’t mean garbage, but it does sometimes mean destruction.

Typically, destruction of an object is treated as a last resort and there are rules around that, too; most museums (yep, us, too) require at least two people to witness the destruction. There are occasions when we deaccession an object in order to destroy it, but that’s always because of safety concerns. If an item has deteriorated badly or been damaged somehow, it might be judged a danger to people, to the objects around it, or to the environment as a whole. We might also make a nasty discovery; for instance, that an item previously considered safe is dangerously radioactive. In that case, we’re not going to keep it in our collection. We’re deaccessioning and getting rid of it as fast as possible according to the relevant rules and regulations.

Squibb’s urinometer, with bulb of mercury at the bottom. The goal is not to break any artifacts, of course, but items like this one can be extra dangerous if dropped. From the Collection of the Museum of Health Care at Kingston (997037372).

This is also a semi-exception to the deaccession before disposal rule; if we break an old thermometer, we don’t have to go through the deaccession process before we can call hazardous waste disposal to clean up the mercury. We do still have to properly deaccession it retroactively, though. Rules are rules.

And that, perhaps, is the main takeaway. A museum may not be forever, but decisions about what stays and what goes are not arbitrary. They’re long and complicated and very well thought out. And when museums refine their collections, it’s a net benefit for everyone. Objects may end up somewhere they’re more appreciated, the museum is able to provide better care to everything remaining in the collection, and the public sees better exhibits and has better access to artifacts and research.

But I guess “You can go back, or you can stay with us and last until the museum decides you’re better suited elsewhere and goes through a complicated procedure while maintaining the highest possible ethics” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it in a children’s movie.

Works Consulted

“AGO Deaccessioning Policy.” Art Gallery of Ontario, November 15, 2017. https://ago.ca/about/ago-deaccessioning-policy.

Branch, Ontario Heritage. “Standards for community museums in Ontario.” (1984).

“Deaccessioning.” Deaccessioning | Royal BC Museum and Archives. Accessed September 16, 2022. https://royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/collections/collections-care/deaccessioning.

“Deaccessioning FAQs.” Galt Museum & Archives. Accessed September 19, 2022. https://www.galtmuseum.com/deaccessioning-faqs.

“Ethics Committee Statement on Methods of Sale of Deaccessioned Collection Items.” Museum Association., 2020. https://www.museumsassociation.org/campaigns/ethics/ethics-committee-statement-on-methods-of-sale-of-deaccessioned-collection-items/.

Greene, Mark A. “I’ve Deaccessioned and Lived to Tell about It: Confessions of an Unrepentant                 Reappraiser.” Archival Issues (2006): 7-22.

Gerrard, Richard. “An Introduction to the Deaccession and Disposal of Collections,” May 29, 2013. Accessed from https://members.museumsontario.ca/resources/tools-for-museum-practice/collections

Gerrard, Richard. Webinar: Deaccessioning. Ontario Museum Association, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8BNRsZtOPo&t=3s.

Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation. “DEACCESSIONING AND DISPOSITION OF COLLECTION OBJECTS GUIDELINE # 100-B,” July 2017.

Lamb, Patti. “A Closer Look: Deaccessioning Artifacts.” Huron County Museum & Historic Gaol, May 20, 2021. https://www.huroncountymuseum.ca/a-closer-look-deaccessioning-artifacts/.

Lochmann, Hans. “Deaccessioning of museum collections–A taboo.” In 2012 Annual Meeting,    Conference intervention from Dublin, Ireland, vol. 2. 2012.

“Nova Scotia Museum Collection Management Policy.” Nova Scotia Museum, n.d.

Paterson, Robert Kirkwood. “Museums and the Dilemmas of Deaccessioning.” Art and Heritage Disputes in International and Comparative Law”[special issue](2013) 5 (2013).

Sandals, Leah. “Why the Chagall Debacle Still Matters, and What to Fix Now.” Canadian Art, May 2, 2018. https://canadianart.ca/news/chagall-debacle-still-matters-fix-now/.

Selman, Chris, and Kathleen Watkin. “Deaccessioning Artifacts from Your Collection.” Museums Association of Saskatchewan, December 23, 2016. https://saskmuseums.org/blog/entry/deaccessioning-artifacts-from-your-collection.

Stephens, Heather Hope. “All in a day’s work: How museums may approach deaccessioning as a necessary collections management tool.” DePaul J. Art Tech. & Intell. Prop. L 22 (2011): 119.

Verjee, Zainub. “Why Deaccessioning Is Never a Straight Story.” Canadian Art, July 30, 2018. https://canadianart.ca/essays/why-deaccessioning-is-never-a-straight-story/.

de Vitis, Tomasina Maria. “Ideally Reality: Alignment of Deaccession Policy and Emerging Practice in History Museums.” PhD diss., 2012.

Wong, Jessica. “Why a Major Canadian Art Gallery Would Sell 20 Works by a Group of Seven Master.” CBC, May 29, 2019. https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/deaccessioning-background-1.5151239.

Rowena McGowan, Curator

Rowena McGowan hails from beautiful Alberta and began her curatorship at the Museum on March 1st, 2022. Rowena holds Bachelor’s degrees in Biology and Archaeology, and graduated with a Master’s degree in Museum Studies from the University of Toronto in 2016.
While working on her degree, she was co-curator of an exhibit on scientific instruments and curator at the Semaphore lab. After graduation, she spent a year as the Marketing and PR Assistant at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. She then took a short-term contract at the Archaeology Department of the Manitoba Museum doing curatorial research for the renovation of the Grasslands gallery.
She has spent the last three years at the Lac La Biche Museum, where she cared for the collection, created exhibits and implemented new educational programming in person and online. In the little spare time her cat allows her, she enjoys writing fiction and has had several pieces accepted for publication.

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