What do You do with Collections in a 21st Century House Museum?

Museums and the Disposals Debate, 2011

One of the findings of the 2007 Kykuit Conference was that “undefined collecting coupled with a lack of professional standards and inconsistent practices regarding deaccessioning are an impediment to change and sustainability” and recommended that “selected sites should develop a pilot process to streamline deaccessioning and share their results with the field.”

Some of this work may have just been accomplished with the publication of Museums and the Disposal Debate, an anthology of essays edited by Peter Davies.  At a hefty 600 pages, it includes two dozen contributions from museums from around the English-speaking world but for those working at historic house museums, you’ll be most interested in “Too Much of a Good Thing: Lessons from Deaccessioning at National Trust Historic Sites” by Terri Anderson, the John and Neville Bryan Director of Museum Collections at the National Trust for Historic Preservation (she moderated the standing-room only session on deaccessioning for AAM a couple years ago).  I read an early version of her essay and it’s the best I’ve seen written on the particular challenges facing deaccessioning at historic sites, which are distinctly different from other museums.

The talk of becoming “21st century museums” is often coded language for the increased use or removal of the historic furniture so the house can be more actively used for weddings, meetings, dinners, and donor cultivation events.  Indeed, the seemingly new emphasis on the social aspects of museums is more akin to the way museums operated in the 19th century, so we may be going backward.  Terri pushes the conversation ahead and rather than bickering about the deaccessioning process itself, discusses the bigger issues that impede the management of collections at historic sites through her artfully written essay:

We have focused our attention on clarifying what should be in our Sites’ collections, rather than simply thinking about what shouldn’t be.  By thinking more strategically about what we have collected and why, we try to improve our vision about what the collection should be.  Our approach has been that any discussion, consideration, or thinking about removing collections from the museum should first start with an examination of the strategic plan for the site, the interpretive and programmatic uses of the site, and the relevance of the collections to the site’s strategic framework and interpretation.

She then provides some examples of particular challenges facing collections at National Trust Historic Sites, including the “never should have been accessioned in the first place” object; pieces with a provenance to the Site that are still appropriate for deaccession; destruction by neglect; and too much of a good thing (I bet these will sound familiar to you) and debates whether funds from deaccessioning can be used for the care of historic buildings, not just objects, at historic sites.

More details on Museums and the Disposal Debate is available from MuseumsEtc and since it’s published in the UK, you might want to buy your copy through Amazon.com.

One thought on “What do You do with Collections in a 21st Century House Museum?

  1. Kenneth Shefsiek

    I agree with your suggestion that “we may be going backwards” in reverting to earlier use practices at historic sites, such that the supposed “new” models that are being advocated in some places represent nothing new at all. Other ideas of “newness” that involve community- and amateur-generated exhibits/programs and “affinity” groups also bear a striking resemblance to older historic site and historical society models. Before we embrace the old as if it were “new,” we need to look very carefully at the problems the old models caused, which generated both the need and desire to professionalize the field. Issues of sustainability and community engagement are issues that we should and must face today, but I don’t think museum professionals or historic preservationists should suggest that we follow “cutting edge” ideas that are actually throwbacks.
    Kenneth Shefsiek, Ph.D.

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