When you add an item to a museum’s collection it is called accessioning.
When you remove it from the collection, it is called deaccessioning. The decision to deaccession something should be taken very seriously.
It is unethical to sell items from a museum’s collection strictly as a fundraising effort. Any funds generated must only be used to enhance the museum’s collections, which can include purchasing acid-free storage materials or acquiring another artifact by purchase. It cannot be used to cover payroll, utility bills, or any other non-collection related endeavor.
A museum’s Collections Policy should clearly address the reasons an artifact can be deaccessioned. Those reasons can include the following:
* the item has deteriorated beyond repair
* the item is unnecessarily duplicated in the collection
* the item is not likely to be used in the foreseeable future
* the item is outside the collections scope as dictated by the museum’s Mission Statement
The Collections Policy should also list the appropriate ways to dispose of the item. Widely accepted methods include discarding the item, auctioning it anonymously at a public auction (including eBay), or transfer to another institution.
Anonymity is key to this process because the public can easily misinterpret the act of deaccessioning. You do not want someone to assume that their cherished heirlooms will not be kept at the museum in perpetuity. If public perception is that your museum just “gets rid” of donated items, you will most likely see a decrease in the number of donors. Deaccessioning is a tricky business, and it is best to use it sparingly and with caution.
Contrary to popular belief, a museum should never return an unwanted item to a donor or his/her heirs. The tax implications are complicated. If the donor has already received a tax deduction for the donation, then he/she cannot have the item in his/her possession without reversing the tax deduction.
Sometimes a new curator has a different perspective about the scope of the collection and may decide to go through it with an eye toward separating the “wheat from the chaff,” so to speak. All deaccesioning activities should be done through a committee, or at least with the approval of the Director and/or the Board of Trustees. Most museums require Board approval for the deaccession of an item above a certain monetary value.
The bottom line is, do not take an item into your permanent collection unless you intend to keep it. If a donor gives you something with the intent that you sell it to raise money, his/her wishes must be explicitly stated in the agreement, which should be transparent to the public. And that item should never be added to the permanent collection in the first place, so you won’t have to deaccession it.