The museums turning culture into a commodity

When museums sell off items to raise cash, they cheapen our cultural life.

On 10 July, an ancient Egyptian statue was sold in London by Christie’s for £15,762,500. The Sekhemka limestone figure, dating from 2400-2300BC, was consigned by Northampton Borough Council (NBC). It had previously been stored at Northampton Museum since its donation before 1880 by the Marquess of Northampton. Unfortunately for Sekhemka, the museum is primarily a museum of local history, focusing on the shoe trade, with a subsidiary collection of fine-art paintings. There is no antiquities department, which meant the sculpture was in storage most of the time. So when NBC were in search of funds for building work at the museum, the statue looked a prime candidate for sale (called ‘deaccessioning’ in the museum world). The piece was rarely on display, lacked a specialist curator to protect it, and Northampton museum was riven by internal personnel conflict. Most important of all, Sekhemka was valuable. Despite warnings from the Museums Association, the Egyptian government and local Northampton figures, NBC consigned and sold the figure last week.

Bury Council sold paintings by Lowry to fund deficits in 2006 and Southampton Council wanted to do something similar to pay for a Titanic museum. The fact that the Sekhemka auction made three times its estimated price of £4-6million has serious ramifications. This will only encourage cash-strapped councils all over the UK to eye their collections with a view to disposing of ‘non-core’ items in order to pay for maintenance, restoration and expansion of buildings – or simply to reduce budget deficits. Ownership of art in public collections can reside with institutions, local councils, NGO or central government, depending on the institution and the means of acquisition. The Museums Association opposes deaccessioning: ‘The MA Code of Ethics prohibits financially motivated disposals, apart from in certain exceptional circumstances, as it risks damaging public confidence in museums and the principle that collections should not primarily be seen as financially negotiable assets.’ The MA has little by way of sanctioning power, however. The Marquess’s intention that the statue should benefit the museum and public of Northampton has gone sadly unrealised. If the Marquess had donated the work to the British Museum it would have been safe from deaccessioning.

In the US, a very different culture prevails. American museums commonly deaccession items for various reasons, but mainly for money to be used for building work or acquiring other items. However, this practice often has disastrous outcomes. Attribution being what it is, the very identity of deaccessioned work can change. There are cases of American museums selling second-rate copies and paintings by minor artists for insignificant amounts, only for them to be cleaned, examined and reattributed as valuable authentic works by important artists. There is always the danger of commercial pressure bleeding over into decisions about museums putting work on to the market. Paintings have been sold to intermediaries for low prices and sold at huge mark-ups to private collectors. So, simply from a financial point of view, deaccessioning is not a smart move.

Another matter is that of taste. Aesthetic, social and political situations change. Pre-Raphaelite painting (1850-1900) is considered a highpoint of British art and is the most popular art of that period for today’s viewers; yet 40 years ago curators shared a common distaste for Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Millais. Likewise, Vermeer’s art remained in almost total obscurity for over 200 years before being appreciated. His art is now considered a highpoint of the European art canon. Museum directors with their eyes on the balance sheet might well have thought of deaccessioning art of this type, to our loss.

Whole tranches of art of the past are considered fusty or irrelevant – consider Victorian art and furniture, sporting pictures, English topographical paintings, portrait miniatures and so on. Folk art (such as dolls, shop signs, amateur painting, everyday decorative material and so on) has only recently been recognised as art at all. The art common and critical consensus dismisses as dull or outdated preserves important information about the culture and society of the era that produced it. It is a useful historical resource. We cannot say now what will be interesting or valuable in 10 or 50 or 200 years’ time, so it is desperately short-sighted to deaccession on the basis of today’s tastes.

In times of austerity, when funding through taxation is considered a last resort and when art achieves ever higher sale prices, there is distinct danger that deaccessioning will go from being a rare aberration to being national and local government policy. Ultimately, the principle of deaccessioning diminishes us all, as short-term gains end up eroding our heritage. The practice of disposal of art from museums – the one place where art can be truly appreciated as an aesthetic and historical object rather than a commodity – coarsens us. When donors realise that their bequests will not necessarily benefit an institution and its constituency, and that bequests may be disposed of for financial advantage, how long before there will be no more donations and the works of beauty and curiosity that could potentially belong to public museums never reach the public?

Alexander Adams is a writer and art critic based in Berlin. He writes for Apollo, the Art Newspaper and the Jackdaw. His book The Crows of Berlin is published by Pig Ear Press. (Order this book from Pig Ear Press bookshop.)

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