Monday, December 06, 2010

"We’re a history museum, not an art museum. It’s a picture of a fish."

The New York Times had another front page story on deaccessioning today -- this time involving the Philadelphia History Museum, which has "quietly" sold more than 2,000 objects "over the last several years," to help raise money for a big renovation of its 1826 building.

You get the usual staking out of positions. The director of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University says: "Museums really cannot continue to accumulate and accumulate and accumulate ad infinitum. What does one do with former acquisitions policies that did not make sense, or not having an acquisitions policy, or having so many objects they can’t care for or don’t really fit within their purpose?" While, on the other side, the director of another local museum says it "rapidly" (rapidly!) becomes a slippery slope: "if we go down this road, we end up paying our gas, electric and water bills — classic operations costs — with deaccessioning proceeds."

I would just note that the Deaccession Police have no way of distinguishing this case from sales by the National Academy or the Rose or any other art museum. If museums hold their collections in "the public trust" (albeit a trust museums feel themselves completely free to invade any time they want to use the proceeds to buy more work -- but leave that aside for the moment), then it's every bit as wrong for this museum to sell its cigar store Indians as it is for the Rose to sell its Warhol. They have no theory to distinguish the one case from the other. But if they allow that these particular sales aren't so bad, then the whole argument for the repulsiveness of deaccessioning falls apart. We might have to start trusting the people who run our museums to make the hard choices and do what's best for their institutions, all things considered. A shocking thought, I know, but I think they just might be up to it.