Discussing disposal

Guest blogger this week is Jenny Durrant. Jenny is a PhD researcher in Museum Studies, University of Leicester (funded by an AHRC Midlands3Citites studentship), and Assistant Curator at Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter (RAMM). She leads a disposals process at RAMM and is involved in dialogue and training at a regional and national level. Her research examines how museum professionals can improve communication with visitors and stakeholders to create a more transparent disposal practice.

Long live the revolution!

Post-it notes stuck to a wall with comments on that weigh up the pros and cons of museum disposal
Weighing up the pros and cons of disposal. Copyright: Jenny Durrant

There’s a slow revolution happening in museums: disposal is becoming acceptable. Collections Review and Disposals now feature heavily in sector training, such as sessions run by the Collections Trust and regional museum federations. These usually sell out quickly and leave some participants with a sense of ‘yes, we can do this!’ But for many others in the sector disposal remains a legal and ethical minefield, and is dismissed as ‘too difficult’, ‘too expensive’ or ‘too lengthy’ a process to undertake.

When a museum does undertake a disposal process it is often behind-the-scenes, with limited information shared with visitors or stakeholders. Disposal is an essential part of a healthy collections management system, which is included in SPECTRUM and with ground-breaking guidance from the Museums Association. Yet many in our sector are reluctant to openly talk about removing objects from collections. How can we become more confident in talking about this curatorial process?

Why is it important to talk about disposal?

Everyone working in a museum will agree that museums exist to keep items that are important to society. So if we are now realising some objects are not that important, we need to explain how and why the objects do not meet the criteria. The decision to remove an object from a public collection needs to be done ethically, and through a ‘transparent’ approach. This means that not only is the process visible, so the public and stakeholders know it is happening, but that people can see through the process. Can people outside of the museum profession understand how and why the decisions are being made, and who is making them?

Valuing objects

When the object under consideration for disposal is a broken hot water bottle stopper (no hot water bottle attached) or an accessioned pair of male underpants (worn by a museum volunteer), then the public will probably accept the professional judgement that these are not culturally important items. But when an object has value because it is beautiful, historically important, provokes an emotional response or has a financial value, then it is essential we acknowledge these criteria and explore how these value judgements are made. Perhaps this is the biggest stumbling block. If we start seeking our visitors’ and stakeholders’ opinions, how can we listen whilst knowing they will bring conflicting views and we will have to dismiss some of these opinions? So in many cases we only seek opinions from within a closed, safe, circle of colleagues or known specialists.

A wall displaying framed botanical drawings in the Flower Power exhibition held at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery in 2017
Flower Power exhibition. Copyright 2017 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council

But seeking a range of views and external advice is an important step in the Collections Review and Disposal process and can bring new and unexpected outcomes. For example during a Collections Review process at RAMM an external specialist discovered a significant collection of botanical drawings, which had been unrecognised and overlooked for many years. Within two years they had been conserved and featured in a major temporary exhibition in the museum.

Let’s talk about ex (collection)

Like any difficult topic, the way to make disposal less scary is to start talking about it. Beginning this conversation is hard but by listening to each other, our visitors and stakeholders, we can start to explore the mushy grey areas of ethics and legality. An excellent new guidance document by the South East Museum Development Programme is a good start to this journey as it highlights the benefits and successes of the Review and Disposal process. But perhaps the sector needs more training in how to facilitate difficult conversations and decision-making?

These conversations will also open up other difficult areas: the public acknowledgement that museums have made mistakes when acquiring objects, and that our record-keeping has not always been as good as we would like. Perhaps these bring with them a fear of reputational damage. But what if? Rather than see these as signs of failure, what if we demonstrate we’re learning from our mistakes? By refining our collections we’re showing our museums have a sustainable and secure future, which is tightly focussed on the objects which have value to our institution’s unique visitors. By being honest about our internal workings we can maintain the public trust that we need and crave.

Learning the language

Curator Jenny Durrant with a First World War German artillery shell
Jenny Durrant with the First World War German artillery shell deaccessioned by RAMM and transferred to Hartlepool Museum. Copyright 2017 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council

Maybe the key to opening up disposal is to think carefully about the language we use. Rather than talking about ‘disposal’ can we talk of ‘refining’? And who are we communicating with? Governing bodies need different forms of communication than young visitors or foreign tourists. Within the sector we’re very familiar in thinking about our language and audiences for our exhibitions, so it shouldn’t be too big a leap to think about how we communicate our curatorial practices.

In 2014 RAMM deaccessioned and disposed of a First World War German artillery shell to Hartlepool Museum. The press release made front page news of two regional papers: not in outrage that the museum was getting rid of a priceless object, but as a celebration that this historic artefact would feature in a new display outside of the county. The key to this article? We spoke only of transfer, not of disposal.


To find out if there are any disposal training sessions happening near you, check out our What’s On page.

See our factsheet on Disposing of objects you may not own.