Why museums should dump the ‘Disposal Toolkit’
Contrary to the advice of the Museums Association, preserving collections is not a ‘burden’ — it’s the whole purpose of museums.
The historic protection of art and artefacts in museums and galleries received a blow this week from the very organisation that should be caring for collections. The UK’s Museums Association, the professional body for the museum sector, has issued a ‘Disposal Toolkit’, encouraging professionals to get rid of stuff from their store rooms.
‘Museums urged to dispose of “burden” collections’, screamed the association’s press release announcing the publication of the Disposal Toolkit. The document states that ‘if an item is no longer relevant, not in use or there is no reasonable expectation of it being used, it may be appropriate to dispose of it’.
Until recently, the disposal of museum collections was anathema to the sector. Indeed, the power of UK national museums and galleries to get rid of stuff is limited by various Acts of Parliament. On the whole, national museums are only permitted to dispose of an object by sale or exchange of gift when it is a duplicate of another in their collections. Even this process is tempered with a check that the decision is not detrimental to the interests of students and the public.
There are good reasons for such checks and limits. The role of national museums is to record, preserve, research and display artefacts and art. They are not shops or businesses, and it is not their job to sell off or dump items that should be held in care for future generations. Museums hold items in storage for the benefit of researchers, in case new questions arise, or for use in future exhibitions when, due to innovation and a bit of imagination, the items are deemed exciting and interesting again.
It is no great surprise that at the same time as museums are suffering a crisis of purpose, they start to see collections as a ‘burden’ and begin to devise strategies for getting rid of them. Most museums were established during the Enlightenment, and contemporary society’s hostility to this period has rendered the role of museums uncertain. Since the 1960s, their role has been challenged by a number of intellectual influences, many developed by museologists and other professionals within the museum sector.
The collective effect of cultural relativism, postmodernism and postcolonial theory has been to question museums’ remit as scholarly organisations that contribute to the pursuit of truth. In the 1980s, their work was further undermined in the UK by the then Tory government, which demanded that museums turn over a profit. Under the New Labour government, museums have been instructed to solve everything from social exclusion to bad race relations and youth crime. Being turned into the frontline for governmental policies, museums professionals are variably treated as businessmen, agents for regeneration, social workers and entertainers.
Now, museum directors and curators seem so uncertain about their own role that they don’t know what to do with the items they’re supposed to take care of. One of the main arguments put forward for removal is that if an artefact is not ‘in use’, it serves little purpose. This displays a very narrow, unimaginative and utilitarian view of display and public involvement. It is true that many artefacts are covered in dust, unseen for decades, but those who complain about this fail to appreciate that artefacts serve multiple purposes in different times.
The fact that an item is not considered particularly relevant, popular or fashionable in the here and now is no reason to discard it. Who is to say that it won’t be regarded as interesting or useful in the future? For instance, the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery’s Collecting Policy 2003–8 characterised the museum’s 1950s sale of South Asian and Far Eastern metalwork as ‘an act of irrevocable rashness’.
Different copies of the same engraving by the same artist need not grace the walls of a museum for all members of the public to see. Yet under the professional scrutiny of researchers, the engravings can reveal important information about the development of the image and the ideas of the artist. Visitors to the British Museum may not want to examine all the 700,000 coins in its collection. Nevertheless, coins are a primary source of information about many aspects of ancient and medieval study.
The Imperial War Museum in London owns 120million feet of film and six million photographs, and the Victoria and Albert Museum holds one million prints and drawings and 80,000 textiles. The Museum of London stores findings from over 5,000 archaeological excavations, including 140,000 boxes of bulk finds from London and over 250,000 individually registered finds.
Much of this may be of poor quality. Some has been ignored for decades and may be ignored for many more. But a long-forgotten film clip, drawing or piece of fabric may, at some point, shed light on the past, possibly revealing details about old printing procedures, the development of pattern and texture, or hidden intimacies about people’s lives.
Institutions can always do more with their stores and there are some good examples of museums putting their large collections to practical and creative use. The King’s Library at the British Museum, for instance, was created with 4,500 objects, most of which were taken from boxes in the basement. The Darwin collection at London’s Natural History Museum provides behind-the-scenes access for visitors. Both show the potential for using material that has been put away, out of sight of the general public.
At a time when funds for caring for and expanding collections are hard to come by, it is foolhardy for the Museums Association to advise selling or dumping them. Much of what is on the walls and shelves of our museums comes from private collections – individuals donate to a specific museum, perhaps to fill gaps in the current collection, or just because they value the place and want to leave a mark on it for posterity. They donate on the understanding that the museum will care for the collection. The John Rylands University Library in Manchester learnt a harsh lesson when it sold off books in 1998 and soon after lost an important loan. The library has found it hard to attract donations ever since.
Many museum collections are too large to be exhibited in their entirety and doing so would be an evasion of curatorship. But display is not the only purpose of a collection; they are also priceless sources of knowledge, treasuries of ideas and material from the past. Many successful shows and education initiatives make use of the work hidden behind-the-scenes, in those storerooms that the Museums Association is now so keen to free up and clear out.
The Disposal Toolkit is a threat to museum collections and is influenced by a profound confusion about the rationale of such institutions. If museums professionals really are so unsure of their own purpose, it would perhaps be safest to keep them away from the objects and artefacts that they were charged to care for on behalf of past, present and future generations.
Tiffany Jenkins is researching the crisis of cultural authority in museum institutions, at the University of Kent at Canterbury. Visit her website here.
Tiffany Jenkins saw the decision to return an obelisk from Italy to Ethiopia as motivated by narrow cultural determinism. Sara Selwood and Maurice Davies studied the relationship between additional funding for museums from the National Lottery, and museum attendances. Josie Appleton said museum directors should concentrate on looking after the galleries, and leave changing the world to the people. Yascha Mounk said those who oppose corporate sponsorship of the Louvre should be weary of state influence on museums, too. Or read more at spiked issue Museums and galleries.