Do deaccessioned items belong in the online collection?

Posted on May 7, 2012

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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 http://www.imamuseum.org/art/collections/artwork/fragment–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.

Posted in: Ideas, Museums, Questions