Do deaccessioned items belong in the online collection?

As regular readers would know, in the last week or two, I’ve been reading Rethinking the Museum by Stephen E. Weil. In the latter sections of the book, Weil addresses the issue of deaccessioning in museums, and it prompted me to think about how museums deal with deaccessioned objects in their online collections.

What happens to the public documentation of a museum object once it is deaccessioned? Does it remain as part of the collection database, now that it is no longer part of the collection? Or does it (should it) sit alongside, but not integrated with, the collection database?

In 2009, the IMA made public their Deaccession Database, which includes “a searchable list of deaccessioned artwork recently sold, transferred or exchanged, and corresponding sale results when applicable, as well as deaccessioned works awaiting sale, transfer, or exchange and their assigned valuations.” Clicking on a deaccessioned work within the database links to the object in its original designation (ie–271), which I think is a useful approach, including the work both as part of the collection, and in its own particular space for “deaccessioned” works.

But what does this mean for our sense of what a collection is? If the online collection contains both current and past objects, are those objects that have been deaccessioned still part of the active collection? If they are included in the online collection and can be used for the creation of new knowledge from this space, then I think they are. At the same time, if the object is no longer in the physical collection, arguing that it still plays a role as part of the collection could be problematic, particularly if it has gone to a new institutional home. Whose collection does it belong in at that point? Is it both? From an academic perspective, I would argue that being able to see the documentation of each institution, to be able to compare and contrast scholarship and information attached to each, is important. But I don’t know what this means for understanding online collections and their place in the museum of the future.

If we can argue that at least some of the value that institutions can bring to their objects in the online collection is through interpretation, then each institution is likely to bring a different understanding to the object. Similarly, if meaning is made by context, then interpreting a set of 5 slat-back side chairs in the context of the IMA’s online collection will be different than seeing the same set of chairs in the context of the Cumberland County Historical Society collection. And does it make a difference if the institution that originally owned the work has an online collection database – like the IMA – and the receiving institution doesn’t? Does this privilege a public interpretation of the object that may no longer be current over a newer interpretation that is not easily accessible? Does that matter? And what does all this mean for donor’s rights?

There are a lot of questions here, and not really any answers. I don’t even know that there are any answers to these sorts of questions, because the issues are so complex, and each individual institution will have to address them separately. But I’d love your input on this, so that I can try to get my head around some of the complexities of this issue a little further. What does your institution do with the public records of deaccessioned objects? What should it do?

How does your institution do with the public records of deaccessioned objects? Do they remain part of the online collection (if they were part of it to begin with)? What do you think should happen to the online collection records of deaccessioned objects? 

P.S. If anyone who was part of the IMA’s original discussions to put the deaccession database online reads this and wants to comment on the process, I would love to hear from you.

9 thoughts on “Do deaccessioned items belong in the online collection?

  1. As far as online collections go, I’d hope the long-term goal is that each organization’s database becomes available through a publicly accessible API and that the online presentation of any object includes cross-references to other objects, including objects from different institutions. For instance, we recently had a renaissance show where we displayed single panels from a larger altar piece. In the tombstone text we mentioned that the other panels were on display in two other museums. I see no reason why our online collections database would not make similar references (probably with even greater detail and, if possible, links to those objects in the other institutions’ databases).

    When the online collection database starts to include references to objects that your museum doesn’t have and never has, it’s only a short jump to including references to objects that your museum used to have but doesn’t any longer. Now, it’s easy to say that our online collections (most of which aren’t even online yet) don’t need to include this info at the moment because we’re not establishing those links yet and we don’t even have the API to create those links with. But if we’re planning for our future rather than just dealing with the present we should be keeping that data around somewhere so that when the day comes that we wish we had it we aren’t feeling pangs of regret. If we really do conclude that we didn’t need that information we can always delete it later. Besides, hard drives are cheap.

    As far as newer/different interpretations go, the interpretation that is most available will always be privileged over the one that is less so. It’s the same reason political candidates spend billions of dollars on advertising. It will become a real concern for institutions to make their interpretations available online or else they may well be ignored no matter how much merit they may have otherwise. I think this ultimately may be the big driver for online collections databases (at least for museums internally). Curators will receive more recognition for their efforts if those efforts are more accessible. Having access to an infrastructure that provides opportunities for professional recognition will become a line-item on a museum’s list of “reasons to work for us”. That might not happen right away because so many curators don’t seem to care about the online space very much yet, but over time it will, and hopefully it will eventually become just another expectation that everyone has of a museum.

  2. This is fascinating. Thank you for sharing this! I too look forward to someone from the IMA commenting on this process/the decision to make this information transparent. I think it is extremely courageous for the IMA to put this information out there for all to see. Most museums would never dream of it for fear of it affecting potential donors or raising eyebrows (a 17th century Italian textile selling for $9.50–is that correct??!), but I think it’s amazing–it holds the museum accountable for the decisions that they make for their institution, and of course, for the public. If someone from the IMA does chime in, I would be curious to know how much they have received public inquiries about deaccessions. I think the operating belief is that making this information transparent online would open the floodgates of criticism, but I wonder if that matches up with the reality of the situation at all…

    As Matt notes, there are also powerful (labor-intensive) possibilities here for linking up collections across museums and tracking the movement of objects. As someone with a material anthropology background, who is fascinated with the “social lives of objects,” this could be extremely powerful information for the creation of new scholarship about the changing contexts of museum objects as they move between places.

    1. It sounds labor-intensive at first because you’re thinking, “We have to put all of this into a database too? On top of what we already do?” But that’s not what I really mean to imply. We are already keeping a ton of records. We are already writing a lot of text, filing entries and making links. We’re just doing these things in lots of disparate little systems (if the word “system” even in applies in some cases) with no real sense of how these things connect to each other. I don’t want our curators to do any more work than they already do. I just want them to do it in a more systematic way so that we can log it, reference it and use it. Right now the only way to get more information about many things is to go back to the curator and ask them. They wrote it down somewhere, but we’re still going to them and wasting their time asking questions they’ve already got a written answer to. Even if their personal record of that info is just some scribbled notes somewhere it’s still silly for them to have to search for it and give it to me if I could just as easily find it myself. If we organized our internal systems more like a platform for scholarly work and less like an encyclopedia which records the results of that work we might be amazed at how much easier all of our jobs can be.

      1. Hi Matt- Completely agreed that it is in everyone’s interest to integrate research information into databases as much as possible. It is tragic when important collections information is only stored in someone’s head. I was just thinking about the fact that in small institutions, even getting objects entered in the database in the first place (not to mention getting any detailed information in), is a constant challenge to a staff that is often too small to keep up with the work.

        I think that this notion of a platform that is organized like a “scholarly work” is extremely intriguing!

  3. Once the object has been published online it should remain online. “Cool URIs don’t change” –
    If the object is already online then others will be linking to it (from search engine results as a minimum). Do we want the users following link that end up on a holding page? “Sorry, we deaccessioned the object and won’t let you read the information now”. This will become more critical with linked data.
    Historic deaccessions that have never been published are a harder decision. Do we want to clutter the online collection? How does this fit in with digitisation priorities?
    I see on the IMA site that deaccessions appear in the general search results. From the main search results it isn’t clear which works are deaccessioned, but they show all the relevant information on the detail page. It is great to see such transparency, particularly with information such as sale price being included.

  4. Catherine, lovely point about the ‘social lives of objects’. I had a great conversation about this topic with Estee Wah at the Powerhouse the other day, and we started discussing whether the online collection is simply an online catalogue that points to a collection, or a living historical document in and of itself. Framing the discussion in that way raises different nuances, I think, and the ‘social lives of objects’ starts to come in here.

    For me, I do think that the online collection can (should?) have a life beyond merely being brochureware that points to what a museum has in its collection. If we were to start acting as if it were a living historical document, how differently would we think about the questions I’m asking above?

    1. Hi Suse- Yes, to me that notion of the collection as a living “document” is the most intriguing part of the discussion! I’m glad others are interested in this too–in my own experience, I don’t find that it’s discussed very often.
      If the collection had a life beyond simply pointing to what a museum contains, fewer people would be questioning the need to include deaccessioned objects in museum collections. And furthermore, I’d assume museums would be inspired (or forced) to consider the socio-political reasons behind what they do (and do not collect)–in that sense, the scholarship being produced would inevitably change as well. And I think that this would be a good thing!

  5. Hi Suse, all,

    So, I was apart of the decision to publish deaccessioned artworks online while I was at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. While the focus of your question seems to revolve around the post hoc interpretation of objects once they’ve been deaccessioned, our main motivation was to try and be more transparent about how funds accrued from deaccessioned objects were used by the museum.

    Ethically, as a collecting institution, we cannot consider the objects we care for as “assets” of the museum in a fiscal sense. So, monetizing them through deaccessioning is an important area where museums can go wrong. In our view, the correct thing to do is to ensure that any funds realized from the deaccessioning of objects from the museum should always and only be used to purchase works of art. The process of deaccessioning is an important facet of collections management over the lifetime of the museum, but could do with a stiff jolt of transparency to reveal the inner workings of the process.

    At the IMA, you’ll notice that if funds were earned from the sales of art, you can trace how those funds were put to use in purchasing new works for the collection. That was really our goal.

    More to your question though – I guess my own opinion is that if a work entered our collection once – we are responsible for documenting that work at that point in time. If it subsequently leaves the collection – I still think we are responsible for the record (imprint) of that object in our data – therefore, clearly stating that the work no longer resides at the museum and listing date, and earnings of any deaccessioning.

    Perhaps for clarity’s sake we should Prefix the titles of such works with a clear (DEACCESSIONED) tag so that when they show up in search the user is not misled.

    Hope this helps answer some questions! Thanks for the interest!

    1. Thanks Rob. It’s really lovely to hear a bit more about the background of the decision, and the motivations behind it.

      I agree with you. I think that the museum is still responsible for the record/data of the object if/when it leaves the collection. I had a great conversation with a curator recently about tracking and making visible changes in collection records, and whether all changes should be shown in a ‘transparent’ collection record process. The question of making visible or highlighting a record that had simply had a spelling mistake changed came up. We agreed that this was something that in an ideal world should be a visible change, because in certain cases a change in spelling can be indicative of a change of interpretation, and not simply of an error. For certain researchers, that kind of information could be quite important, even though it seems like a small thing.

      That’s a slightly different issue of course, but it still relates to how we think of the collection record and its purpose/use by others.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s