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Happily Never After: A Moral Proposition for the Management of Museum Collections

By Subhadra Das, on 11 February 2016

This is a provocation I wrote and presented at ‘The Future of Museums’ Conference, held at UCL in 2014. Having attended a few seminars and conferences in the sector recently, I feel the need to share it with a wider audience. The text appears as I presented it at the conference, with added links for your delectation and miniscule adjustments to diction and syntax to make me sound cleverer.


My provocation was: “In the future, no object should ever enter a museum collection on the assumption that it will be there forever.” Looking back, that’s pretty tame. What I meant to tell you was that, if I ever get round to writing one, my ideal Collections Development Policy would consist of just 5 words:

“Burn it. Burn it all.”

Maybe with an appendix that reads, “Or better still, sell it, if you can.”

Now, if you are at all well brought up, or at the very least, you have a degree in Museum Studies you will be horrified at this prospect. I’m here to tell you, that not only should you believe this is a terrific idea, but that you will also be a better person for thinking it is.

To get back to basics, when I did my Museum Studies degree we were told that our profession is founded on two pillars  One, to preserve the physical aspects of cultural and natural heritage for future generations and two, to make these accessible to everyone. It is now generally accepted that the second pillar is borderline hogwash. Or, at best, requires improvement on careful study. We all know that not everyone is interested in museums, and that any self-respecting exhibition considers specific audience, not some wishy-washy do-gooding idea of being ‘for everybody.’

But the first pillar remains unquestioned. Even those of us who are pragmatic and progressive in our approach to disposal are tethered to some version of the notion that we have to keep this stuff forever.

This is a stupid notion, because nothing lasts forever. The Ancient Egyptians had their own versions of what we would think of as museums. We know this because archaeologists have dug them up. I bet those Ancient Egyptian museum curators are pretty embarrassed about the whole thing.

I could give you many good arguments in favour of museum disposal.

I could tell you about how disposing of objects from collections frees up resources to let you better manage those objects that you actually are interested in working with, which was the seminal argument put forward in favour of disposal by Nick Merriman, in his 2004 article on Museum Collections and Sustainability.

I could tell you that responsible disposal is advocated by the Museums Association as a professional responsibility for effective collections management and managing effective collections. Which it is.

I could tell you that deaccessioning and auctioning off objects from a collection can not only raise revenue for a museum, but also provide the raw materials for innovative and engaging projects. An excellent example is Recycle LAMCA, a project by Los Angeles-based artist Robert Fontenot who bought more than 50 deaccessioned textiles from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and turned them into, well, other textiles – everything from coat hangers to shoulder pillows, machine-gun bandoleers, ear-muffs and teddy bears.

I could tell you, that changes to the law and the collecting policies in 2010 now allows the restitution of objects stolen by the Nazis – which would be very timely of me as its been reported this very week that the V&A and Ashmolean museums have had claims made against them regarding various bits of porcelain in their collection.

I’m sure you’ll all agree with me that this last example is a much better outcome than holding on to objects for the reason they previously did, which was ‘that’s what museums do.’

I could tell you about all those things but I’m not going to. Because while there are plenty of good arguments in favour of the practice of disposal in museums, no one has ever made a convincing moral argument in its favour. No one has addressed how, despite all the practical considerations and arguments, we still feel like we’re doing the wrong thing when we dispose of museum objects.

Until now.

I believe that when we feel like we’re doing the wrong thing, what we’re actually doing is committing the ultimate hypocrisy. When we refuse to get rid of something because :

  • ‘something might turn up’
  • because it would discourage donors
  • because we never know if it might turn out to be something really important, that it has more value for the greater good rather than a specific group of stakeholders

We deny our own agency. We try and make it look like we don’t exist, like we don’t play an active role in what goes on display, how it’s interpreted or conserved. We wipe ourselves out of the picture because “Look, it’s OK, it’s all good — it’s not like we got rid of something; we still have all the stuff!”

What I want to  tell you is that it’s not all about the stuff – it never has been.

Everybody else who deals with this stuff is political – everyone from Native Americans and Australian Aborigines whose cultures have been subsumed into museum collections, to the looters of archaeological sites, the traders in illicit antiquities, the multinationals who fund enormous new wings in national museums, the governments like the one in Argentina where they put the national museum on one of the bank notes.  They are all in it for themselves and it’s time we acknowledged that we are too.

I don’t want to be some nameless, faceless automaton that’s really good at documentation (most of the time), I want to meet people to tell them the stories that live in the collections I work with and hear the stories they have in return. It is time we stopped letting our accession registers and digital catalogues do the talking for us and speak out.

It is our duty to keep the stories going.

I’m the sort of person who has always been intrigued by museum collections, not so much because of what is in them, but by the way they work. And what I find demoralizing about them, about us, about modern collections management practice, is that we try and hide the workings, we put ourselves into a black box.

And while I am the first to appreciate that it’s dark and quiet and cosy in there, it’s not what we’re supposed to be about, it’s not helping us to do the right thing. The right thing is to be right in there with everyone else.

And if we continue to insist of treating all objects equally, I suggest that instead of making everything precious, we acknowledge that we make it all up and that no harm will come from the fact should we choose to burn it, burn it all.

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