By Erin Doane, Curator
I was delighted to hear Dr. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian, on the November 3rd episode of Wait wait…don’t tell me! the weekly news quiz from NPR. I always get a little excited when museums get airtime in the “real world.” I enjoyed Peter Sagal’s interview of Dr. Clough and the game that followed (he won!) but one exchange got me thinking.
They were talking about having the puffy shirt from the tv show Seinfeld in the Smithsonian’s collection when this was said:
Peter Sagal: Have you ever thought of removing it when no one is looking?
Wayne Clough: Well, the word for it is called de-accessioning.
Clough: That’s what they call it.
Paula Poundstone: De-accessioning. That’s when you take something out in the dark of night, because it embarrasses you?
Clough: That’s correct.
[text taken from typed transcript of the show available at npr.org]
I know it was said in a tongue-in-cheek way for the sake of humor and I did laugh at first but it also set off some alarm bells in my head. I have dealt with contentious deaccessioning before. There can be a lot of misunderstanding of the process and that can create tension and resentment in the community. I have explained to several different, angry people that no, we are not going to just throw out your grandmother’s wedding gown and, unfortunately, no, you cannot have it back to prevent such a thing from ever happening.
So, at the risk of being labeled a kill-joy, or whatever the hip kids are calling it these days, I find I have to explain what deaccessioning is really about. Just to set the record straight, deaccessioning is not the process by which unwanted items are snuck out of a museum in the dark of night. Deaccessioning is the thoughtful removal of an object from an institution’s permanent collection. All museums have, or should have, a policy on deaccessioning which outlines why and how an object is deaccession.
The whys of deaccessioning are pretty straightforward. An object may be removed from the collection if it does not fit the museum’s mission, if it is a duplicate of items already in the collection, if it is in poor condition and cannot be conserved or if it is dangerous/toxic. The hows are equally simple. The object can be offered to another museum where it is a better fit, it can be sold at public auction (all money made this way goes into a restricted fund to acquire more objects for the museum) or, if it is in poor shape or is dangerous, it can be disposed of.
Each object is reviewed on an individual basis. Sometimes it is very easy to make a deaccessioning decision, sometimes it is more complicated and difficult, but there is always a process behind the decision that should ensure that the best is being done for both the institution and the object.