Never let me go? A case study of deaccessioning and disposal undertaken at Museum of Wellington City and Sea
In the current economic climate museums are increasingly being asked to do more with less. For museums that hold collections, this poses a unique challenge. With the cost of collections being relentlessly accumulative, questions are being raised about the long term financial sustainability of current collecting practices. Deaccessioning is being suggested as a way in which museums can improve the quality of their collection without increasing its size. Yet the literature on deaccessioning suggests that the process is fraught with ethical and practical difficulties. By highlighting the negatives aspects of the process, writing in museum studies and practice does little to explore how deaccessioning might be used to achieve positive outcomes. This research addresses this gap by asking whether deaccessioning is a positive tool that, if used appropriately, can assist a museum in improving the quality and manageability of their collection through systematic planning. To understand how and why a museum may permanently remove objects from their collection, the study focuses on one New Zealand museum’s response to the challenge of redeveloping a collection through the process of deaccessioning and disposal. The Museum of Wellington City and Sea’s deaccessioning process is analysed through documentary research and interviews with Museum staff. The interviews offer an understanding of the thought processes and motivations involved in selecting objects to be deaccessioned. The data collected reveals both the challenging aspects of the process but also offers insights into how these aspects can be mitigated or resolved. The conclusions presented in this dissertation suggest that deaccessioning is an integral part of current museum practice that can be used positively to actively shape and refine a museum collection. I argue that some of the beneficial outcomes of the process include greater understanding of collections, improved knowledge and context, resolution of historical collecting problems, strategic relationships built with other museums and improvement in how objects are stored and utilised. More importantly deaccessioning allows museums to determine the character and content of their collections. In order for this to be achieved, I recommend that museums adopt a rational approach to reviewing their collections that is multi-disciplinary, transparent and acknowledges how their collection is used in the achievement of their institution’s mission.