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In the course of our comprehensive inventory project, we are discovering many redundant items in our collection and are about to start deaccessioning some of the items. We do have a policy in place, but are wondering if any of you have advice about the deaccessioning process that would help us refine our collection without upsetting donors, families, or the community.

Thank you!

Ann Grandy
Pope County Historical Society

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7 Responses to Refining without upsetting

  1. Claudia Nicholson says:

    Ann: I feel terrible that no one has had any comments about this.

    The reason is probably that no matter how carefully you do it, you are likely to upset some people. I am sure that when you are considering deaccessioning, you are selecting material that is poorly documented, in poorer condition than better-documented examples, all of the usual criteria that we have for making these kinds of decisions.

    I am going to run into the same problem here when I begin making recommendations for deaccessioning because this institution had a culture of accepting everything and it is hard for people now to think that we might limit our scope of collecting. Collectors believe that if something has extreme monetary value, then you should keep it, no matter what it represents or if it fits in with your area of interest. (I get the George Washington’s sword question all the time: If someone offered your George Washington’s sword, would you take it? My answer is always no!)

    I think that your best buffer against criticism is a collections committee made up of community volunteers who can be your advocates in the community on this issue. I finally got my collections committee authorized by the board and they have been jointly making collecting decisions. When the time comes, they’ll also be making the deaccession decisions.

    This committee needs to come to the work with an open mind, so that you can educate them about the expenses related to collecting, the standard of care required, and the reality that museums cannot simply keep collecting indefinitely without doing some judicious and well-thought-out pruning. No museum has those kinds of resources.

    Recently, I held a couple of sessions for members on what it means for us to be a "real" museum, upholding a professional standard. It was an eye-opening experience for the members who came. For the first time, someone told them about the public trust that we are managing. They learned that aside from taking the collections in the door, we are then required to legally add it to our collection, gather baseline information, register the object and ensure that we can trace it back to its documentation, take the best care possible of it, and be able to produce it when a member of the public wants to see it. You might consider holding some community forums on what you plan to undertake and why. Get out the best examples and explain clearly to your audience why you think you should get rid of it. Then talk them through how that will happen.

    However, in the end, you will not be able to please everyone. More than 10 years ago, the Bennington Museum (Bennington, VT) began a deaccession project designed to refine their collection and get rid of pottery that could not be documented to the Bennington Pottery. They spent years researching the collection, consulted experts in the field, and in the end, decided to get rid of only those pieces that they were absolutely certain did not come from Bennington. All of this work would have gone unnoticed except for a couple of pottery collectors who took exception to the museum’s professional work and logic. They made a huge stink about the deaccession and used all the means at their disposal to bring shame upon the museum. I asked the director if anyone else in the world had commented on their proposed deaccession and he said, "Not a one."

    Doing everything right does not ensure that your work will pass unnoticed. But that’s no reason not to do what is right and necessary.

    Best of luck with this!



  2. Kathy Carlson says:

    Ann: I’m surprised no other librarians have responded to your very real problem. Librarians (especially school librarians) have much the same problem when deaccessioning items from their collections.
    Although I am a librarian, and not an archivist or museum curator, I have a suggestion that may be helpful in the future. Most libraries have a selection policy which addresses the deaccessioning of materials. This is usually written in collaboration with others in the same field, and then offered (and hopefully) passed by whatever governing board you answer to. In this way, librarians can honestly tell donors from the very beginning that the item/s offered for donation will undergo the same criteria (in the selection policy) as purchased items, and because (hopefully) there is a periodic reassessment of items, there may be a time when their item/s no longer meet the criteria for the museum’s collection, and may be deaccessioned.
    I hope this is helpful, even though it comes from the library realm. Good luck from a fellow-collections custodian.


  3. Mary Warner says:

    Education, education, education. On the front end, before accepting anything for our collections, we make it very clear that we can only take items related to Morrison County. We have gotten the word out, via brochures, newsletter and website, that people considering donating items call ahead to see if we will accept them. (People have obviously taken this to heart, because we get lots of calls & very few drop-ins.) We tell them about our lack of space. We’ve discussed the responsibility they are giving us. We let them know that we will never strong-arm them into donating anything. Our Curator of Collections is fastidious about getting a signed Donation Record, and we communicate how this transfers legal ownership to the museum, which includes the right to dispose of an item, if necessary. Of course, all of this is done so that we don’t have to get rid of items. We want to live up to the public’s trust. That said, what do we do about deaccessioning items we already own? We have a deaccessioning policy and form. We deaccession very rarely. Our form states the following:

    "Deaccessioning occurs on occasion to maintain the quality of the collection. Artifacts are deaccessioned if they are duplications within the collection, have deteriorated beyond the point of possible restoration, cannot be properly maintained and stored, or no longer fit the Socity’s purpose. Deaccessioning must be approved by the director and collections committee if estimated value is less than $5,000 and by the board of directors if estimated value is more than $5,000. A complete record of deaccessions shall be maintained by the director. Attempts shall be made to contact the donor or to donate the item(s) to be deaccessioned toother organizations. Proceeds from the sale of deaccessioned items shall be placed in a collections fund for the purpose of augmenting the existing collection."

    Hope this helps.

    Btw, it could be that we are getting few responses on blog questions because we are in the middle of our busy season. That’s why I haven’t had time to respond anyway.


  4. Claudia Nicholson says:

    It just occurred to me that I have a copy of a brochure from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum that explains their collecting philosophy, similar to what Mary does in Morrison County. As you can imagine, they get offered a ton of stuff that is of dubious worth, duplicative, or just plain unrelated (Babe Ruth’s fingernail clippings, anyone?). What Sue has done is produce something that helps lay people understand how museums do their work.

    I can ask her if she’d mind if I passed it along to anyone who’d like to take a look at it. I plan to steal it myself, as I find myself in much the same boat as the Hall . . .



  5. Ann Grandy says:

    Thank you for the responses. It is such a difficult subject. We are much more careful these days about what we accept into the collection, but are still burdened with MANY duplicate / redundant / damaged items already in the collection.

    Some of the biggest problems I have encountered are – many older donations do not have signed forms turning over ownership. Of course we make sure we get that NOW, but dealing with old donations is a problem. How long do we spend researching / finding family members of the deceased donor to get proper leagal status for an item that we don’t want anyway?

    MN state law allows us to take posession after seven years, but only if we send a registered letter to the last known address or post a legal notice in our paper if we can’t find the owner. White that makes sense when dealing with valuable items, it can get really expensive for items that are worth little to nothing. (Registered letters cost $9.50 each.) Have any of you gone through this process to take ownership?

    Also – if we deaccession an item and would like to offer it to another institution (like yours), how would you like to hear about it?

    Thanks again!!

    Ann Grandy

    Pope County Historical Society


  6. Deborah Morse-Kahn says:

    I must have mmissed this important question, apologies for being so late to the conversation.

    In the years when I was curator and archivist at the Edina Museum, I was their first appointee in those dual roles. The museum collections and library were overwhelmed with donations very loosely linked–or not at all–to the story of the city and the mission of the museum. It was clear from the first month onsite that a major deaccessioning effort was going to be needed, for no other reason than that the storage space was full to bursting. Also, a full-out rehousing effort to acid free storage was going to be needed, so we had a great excuse to open every box, drawer and closet, and look at the contents closely.

    The cultural materials–clothing, dishes, candlesticks, all of it–was carefully reviewed by staff, our longtime and very knowledgeable volunteers, and Board members against the original accession sheets. We learned that a great many items donated by local families had, in fact, not been used in Edina or were part of estate collections given outright as a lot to the EHS. The biggest group of these gentle "offenders" were books: we deaccessioned perhaps 60% of the collection with the end result being a massive booksale which took in an enormous amount of cash to replenish the EHS account and delighted us with the success of an open event which drew many folks who had never walked in the door. The booksale became and remains an annual event, restocked every year by donations from members. New memberships accrue each year during the annual book sale.

    Other cultural materials–clothing, furnishings, toys–was trickier. If the item was one of ten similar types, e.g., dolls, we chose the very best two or three representing different eras, and held out the rest for appraisal. If we could return it to the donating family, we did, but it rarely happened. In many instances the donating families had long ago moved from the city, so we could not reach them. So we donated many of these general types of items to other societies that were trying to fill out their own collections, or sold them to collectors and put the earnings into the foundation account.

    There were some instances where we kept everything of a type that was in good condition and could represent a range of eras (e.g., wedding dresses), knowing we would want to mount a full exhibit, and do it again with a few years just for popularity.

    With few exceptions (I remember none at all!) most folks really did understand what we were trying to do. And, because of the deaccessioning experience, the new accession philosophy–and the art of gentle refusal–has, I am sure after many years (current director Marci Mattson can fill us in) helped to keep the EHS collections in good trim.

    Now, after more than a decade in consulting on archival collections, this experience continues to serve me very well as work with collections managers or families to make decisions about what to hold…and what to let go of. The bottom line for societies is always about space, then about appropriate representation of the city story. If its an individual or family, its a little different: how much emotional attachment, generational memory is associated with these items? Would one or two kept in nice acid-free boxes (folders, envelopes, tissue) be enough to represent that important sense of connection? If so…give the rest away among the family and the younger generations, who are often thrilled to have a tiny piece of their family "past."

    Deborah Morse-Kahn
    Regional Research Associates, Minneapolis


  7. Nicole Delfino Jansen says:

    Ann brought up some questions about the Minnesota Museum Property Act that I would like to address, but with the standard disclaimer that I am not an attorney and if you have any specific concerns, you should probably address them with an attorney who is aware of our law. You can find links to the law and fact sheet, as well as an article I wrote on implementing it at http://www.mnhs.org/registrar. There are also links to resources for researching ownership issues.

    Now, having said all of that, I want to make sure that it is clear that the Minnesota Museum Property Act is a law is meant to provide a means for collecting institutions to take title to items that were originally deposited as LOANS but which were subsequently abandoned. This often happened in the early part of the last century when items were quite regularly deposited on long-term loan or permanent loan, possibly with the thought that they might one day donate them, but without ever implementing a transfer of title. Many of us have these lingering in our collections. They are fine there until you want to put them on exhibit (in some cases), lend them out, have treatment performed on them, or deaccession them. If you have any indication that items in your collection were placed there with the intention to be lent, not gifted, then you really do need to attempt to contact the owner before you deaccession the items, and follow the procedures outlined in the law. Constructive notice is what triggers the statute of limitations, which is seven years in Minnesota.

    Transfer of ownership is a transfer of responsibility for any loans, by the way, meaning, if you received items on loan years ago, then decide to transfer ownership of them to another museum, they will be assuming the same responsibilities for the loan as you had. And technically you need to notify the owner in such cases. Best to acquire clear title first. And indication of a loan can come in the form of a list of loans to the museum, a letter mentioning the items as a loan  any document that indicates it was intended to be a loan, rather than a gift.

    This is distinctly different from items that are in your collection without signed gift forms. We all have those, too. Procedures were different early on. If these are BELIEVED to be gifts, meaning, if these were registered under new acquisitions, or basically lack any indication to the contrary that they were given to your museum, then you can presume they were a gift and handle it as such. Even if you dont know the owner, if an item is left with you mysteriously, and no one claims it within 90 days, you can assume clear title to it (assuming you want to accept it in the first place). The issue of notification in these cases would just reside in your institutional deaccession policy.

    As always, just be sure to document what you do very well, so that if a question arises later, you can show your due diligence and direct someone making an inquiry to the appropriate new source. The reality is that the burden of proof resides with the person making a claim, but with the public trust in mind, we all want to do our best to honor agreements and keep all that we do documented to the best of our abilites.

    MHS has not yet utilized this law, but I know that the Minneapolis Institute of Arts has begun the process with at least one of their old loans. Hopefully once they arrive at the end of that process, they will be able to share with us what they learned from it. It is definitely a complicated issue!

    Best of luck!


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