Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Monday, September 15, 2014

Deaccessioning: Everyone Remain Calm

This past month I've been spending a lot of time on one of the most complicated, stressful and controversial things that collections departments do: Deaccessioning.

Now, if you type "deaccession" or "deaccessioning" into Word you will get an immediate red squiggle because no one outside the museum world knows what it is. Basically, to "accession" something into a museum is to make it part of the collection. So to "deaccession" is to remove it from the collection. 

It is controversial and misunderstood because the public tends to FREAK OUT when they hear a museum is getting rid of something. The immediate assumption is either 1) We are tossing priceless cultural artifacts into the dumpster or 2) We are selling off the collection so that the whole staff can get yachts.

Our actual intentions are much less nefarious. To begin with, people don't realize how large museum collections are. Most museums have only about 5-10% of their collection on display at any given time. With 100,000 artifacts and about 2,000 on display, MOHAI clocks in at 2%. So you shouldn't picture beloved artifacts disappearing from display--it is usually stuff you never knew about is departing from deep corners of storage. 

MOHAI has one hundred thousand artifacts. Let that sink in a little. Are you picturing the final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark? That is what it feels like sometimes. We have thousands of square feet of storage space and some of it is packed full. In order to be good stewards of the collection (and have space to keep collecting new things) we have make sure we are using our resources to care for things that are actually relevant to our mission. 

So, say for example that we decide to deaccession a typewriter. "NO!" the public cries, "Typewriters were an essential writing tool before personal computers. How will our children know about typewriters if the museum doesn't teach them?" 

Usually said with some combination of hand wringing and/or pearl clutching

What if then I tell you we have 84 typewriters in the collection. The one we are deaccessioning is one of thirty that have no connection to Seattle, one of twenty that are broken, and one of six from the exact same year. Once it is deaccessioned there will still be 83 typewriters in the collection. 

Starting to get it? 

But the real panic sets in about what we do with things we deaccession. Does it all go in the dumpster? Does it end up in the curator's home? Do we sell it in some back alley transaction, get the money in singles, and then ask an intern to "make it rain"?

Sounds ethical to me!

Ok, I keep making fun of the "the public" but they do have a point about all this. Museums shouldn't have free rein to get rid of things that we have been entrusted to care for. Which is why there are a lot of ethical rules that govern deaccessioning. Like, a lot. I started writing a list but it turned this already long post into a short novel.

Here is the abbreviated, abbreviated version:
-The process is long, involves doing research, and a committee that has to vote unanimously on the decision.
-Once deaccessioned, it is preferable to transfer items to other institutions while sale is a second choice. Not all museums make that priority but MOHAI does and we are lucky that the board members on our collections committee really uphold it (sometimes it is board members who can get dollar signs in their eyes and want to sell, sell, sell).
-If things are sold, no one associated with the museum can buy them (huge conflict of interest) and the money earned can only go back into improving the care of the collection (so artifacts can't be sold off to solve a museum's finical woes and/or facilitate yacht buying).

Hopefully at this point you aren't lighting your torches and heading off to rescue all the artifacts since clearly we can't be trusted with this "deaccessioning" business.

Anyway, I've been having a lot of fun working on deaccession proposals. As part of the process we research the artifact, the donor, the maker, and any other shred of information in case we uncover some reason why the object is worth keeping. Sometimes when I go down a rabbit hole of society intrigue in early 20th century Louisiana or family trees in Minnesota I'll feel like I'm going overboard, but deaccessioning really should be about doing our due diligence.

Because of these stockings I learned that "Bowbells" is the 106th largest town in North Dakota

The research also helps with transferring items. The more you know, the easier it is to find another institution that might be a better fit. When stuff clearly has no Puget Sound connection, it is fun to poke around on the internet, find some potentially relevant museum or historical society, and then send an email and make a connection with a colleague in some other corner of the country.

But sometimes stuff stays close to home. Last month we deaccessioned a surplice (which is your liturgical vocabulary word of the day!) that had belonged to Bishop Stephen Bayne, third Bishop of the Diocese of Olympia.

also known as a church caftan

Despite its name, the Diocese of Olympia is headquartered in Seattle, and Bishop Bayne is one of the predecessors of my oil-dumping friend Greg. BUT this particular surplice was made by for his ordination in New York (made by his mother! awwww) and so doesn't really tell the story of his ministry in Washington.

Bishop Bayne donated it to MOHAI about twenty years before the Diocese of Olympia set up their own archive. So we deaccessioned it and transferred it there, so it could hang out with other vestments and the personal papers of Bishop Bayne.  I got to take it personally to archive, which is held in the top floor of the beautiful Diocesan House on Capitol Hill. The archivist showed me around and told me about the house, the portraits of all the Bishops, and the contents of the archives. She kept apologizing for "probably telling you more than you wanted to know" and I was like ARE YOU KIDDING I'M EATING THIS UP!!!

Kids in Candy Stores = Museum People in Old Mansions
The most exciting thing was that two of the Bishop portraits were painted by Ted Rand, a Seattle-area painter and illustrator who also did ads for Frederick & Nelson in the 1950s.

Ted Rand: Illustrator of Fashion, Painter of Bishops
See, deaccessioning isn't scary and evil! It finds happy homes for neglected artifacts, creates connections between organizations, and somehow led us into a world were you can talk about local church history and fashion advertising in the same sentence. EVERYONE WINS.

No comments:

Post a Comment