Spring cleaning and de-cluttering are terms we’re all familiar with around the home. Whether it’s making room in the wardrobe for summer clothes, or moving into a smaller house, decisions need to be made about what to keep and what to discard. From time to time, museums also need to review what’s in and what’s out in their collections. However, taking objects or artworks out of a collection is not as easy as flicking off an old dress to the op-shop.

‘Deaccessioning’, or formally removing items from a museum’s permanent collection, was the focus of a workshop held at Central Stories in Alexandra last month. Jane Legget from Te Papa, National Services Te Paerangi, shared her expertise on deaccessioning with 19 participants covering Clyde, Cromwell, Teviot and Alexandra museums as well as those from Arrowtown, Glenorchy and Southland.

There are five main reasons why an item might be deaccessioned: lack of relevance, duplication, lack of space, safety concerns, and deteriorating condition of the item.
“Things often come in unexpectedly. Accepting everything that is donated to a museum may result in a crisis of accumulation. It’s much harder to take something out of a collection than to add to it. That’s where a museum’s collections policy is vital. It provides the museum with the confidence to say ‘thanks, but no thanks’,” Jane says.
“A good collections policy will define a museum’s focus or scope. If an object doesn’t fit with this scope, then it should possibly be held at another museum that has a different, more relevant connection with the object.”

Before decisions are made, museums should undertake research about each object to assess its significance, history and relevance to the museum’s focus.
Once a museum has decided to remove an object from its permanent collection, the next task is ‘disposal’ which typically involves transferring ownership. “Ideally disposal methods should aim to keep the object as part of a collection that is accessible to the public.”

Careful consideration should also be given on how to deal with disposal. Methods include donating the object to another museum or archive where the object has a better fit. The object might also be exchanged with an item from another museum. “Both methods are a great way for museums to strengthen their unique point of difference.”

Workshop participants were given a range of objects to practice the decision-making steps involved in deaccessioning items from a collection. In this image, an Indian textile was being evaluated by the group.