To Have and To Hold: Museum Ethics for Letting Go

For more information on museum ethics, check out our museum ethics resource page.

How can a museum deaccession its collections in an ethical manner?

The city of Detroit is considering this question as the city’s emergency manager considers selling some of the 60,000 items held by the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum to lighten the city’s fiscal crisis.  The vast majority of the DIA’s collection is owned by the city of Detroit and could be seized to resolve part of its billion-dollar debt.  Last year, the DIA was saved from closure by voters who elected to take on additional property tax to support the continuation of the museum.

Those opposed to using the museum’s collection as a bargaining chip argue that the cultural resources the museum provides are held in the public trust and cannot be deaccessioned to pay off debt taken on by the city.  The ethical standard for museums says that proceeds from the sale or trade of collections may not be used for anything other than the acquisition of new materials or for the direct care of collections.  If an object is deaccessioned, the proceeds can only be used to preserve or purchase other artwork or objects for the collection.

Because museum collections reflect the heritage of the communities from which they have been derived, the sale or trade of collections must be done in a regulated manner that respects the preservation of the collection as a natural and cultural resource.  As the ethical guardians of its collections, museums must only relinquish items when they will continue to be properly protected and the communities from which their collections originate consent.

As stewards of collections, museums must pursue the highest ethical standards towards the rightful ownership, care, documentation, accessibility, and responsible disposal of collections. Museums, and the cities that benefit from them, must not rely on collections to sustain financial viability irrespective of the financial value of the collections.  Museums must look beyond just acting lawfully and consider what it means to act ethically.  While laws usually reflect the ethical standards of the community, museums must go beyond these basics to maintain public confidence and trust.

What do you think is the biggest concern in museum ethics today?  Let us know in the comments below.

More information on the future of the Detroit Institute of Arts:

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