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Deaccessioning and disposal – scope

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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. Sometimes, objects are ‘transferred’ within a museum, eg from the collection of accessioned objects to a handling collection of non-accessioned ones.

As explained in the Acquisition and accessioning procedure, ‘accessioning’ has a very specific meaning: a formal commitment by a museum governing body to accept objects into its long-term collection. Accessioning brings with it ethical responsibilities, as does the reverse process. Deaccessioning 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.

Date created: 2017

Publisher: Collections Trust