Disposal (Spectrum 5.0 consultation draft)

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Scope

Use this procedure to dispose of objects that belong to your museum. Reasons might include: objects damaged beyond further use; repatriation of human remains or sacred objects; or transferring duplicate objects to another museum as part of curator-led rationalisation.

As explained in the Acquisition procedure, ‘accessioning’ has a very specific meaning: a formal commitment by a museum governing body to accept objects into its ‘permanent’ collection. Accessioning brings with it ethical responsibilities, as does the reverse process. ‘Deaccessioning’ involves a formal decision by a governing body to dispose of accessioned objects. It always needs careful thought in the light of agreed policy, ideally an integrated ‘collection development policy’ covering both acquisition and disposal.

The ethical consensus on museum disposal has shifted from, in the words of the Museums Association, a ‘strong presumption’ against disposing of accessioned objects to acknowledging that ‘responsible disposal takes place as part of a museum’s long-term collections development policy and starts with a curatorial review.’ Financially-motivated disposal is still considered unethical and is likely to result in sanctions from professional and funding bodies.

You can also use this procedure to dispose of items that belong to you but have not been accessioned. These might include objects provisionally acquired through contemporary collecting, but not accessioned at the end of a specified review period. It also covers certain types of bulk material from archaeological and natural history fieldwork. After such material has been analysed and the results published and archived, often only a sample is retained for future research.

Whether accessioned or not, disposing of objects always needs careful thought within the framework of an agreed policy. The main difference is that your governing body should always consider proposed deaccessions, but might delegate decisions about non-accessioned material.

The Spectrum standard

You must have a policy covering the disposal of accessioned and non-accessioned objects. This could either be a standalone document, part of an integrated collection development policy, or within a wider collections management policy. Either way, you should include answers to these questions:

  • What ethical codes will you follow when considering potential disposals?
  • Apart from general considerations, are there any specific legal constraints on your ability to dispose of objects? (eg your governing document or specific agreements with donors)
  • Why and how might you dispose of objects?
  • What criteria will you consider when considering proposed disposals?
  • Who can propose and authorise the disposal of accessioned objects?
  • Who can propose and authorise the disposal of other kinds of non-accessioned material?

You must also have a written procedure that explains the steps to follow when disposing of objects. Spectrum’s suggested procedure is a useful starting point, and is available as a workflow diagram or as a text file you can edit. However you do it, your own procedure must meet the following minimum requirements:

Minimum requirement Why this is important See (cross-references to be added in final version)
You make the case for any proposed disposal of an object in writing. Those making the decision have all relevant facts and can check the proposal against agreed policy.
In the written case you cite the documentation that proves you own the relevant objects (or gives grounds to assume you do).
In the written case you research and note any specific risks, costs or other relevant constraints. You do not dispose of hazardous objects improperly or even illegally (eg asbestos).
You get specific approval from your governing body before disposing of any accessioned object, and from more than one authorised person disposing of any non-accessioned material. Your governing body can be properly accountable for disposals.

Objects are not disposed of at the whim of one individual.

You dispose of objects in line with the ethical codes that apply to your museum. You do not risk reputational damage or lose Accredited status.
You formally enter approved deaccessions in your accessions register and update other relevant records. Your accessions register is your tamper-proof master list of all the objects you own.
You keep all documentation relating to disposals. There is an audit trail in case of later problems.

Feedback

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Response

  1. Step-by-step procedure should also include checking legislation and governing body limitations.
    Flowchart required.

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Date created: 2017

Author: Collections Trust

Publisher: Collections Trust