Judith's on-the-road diary - March 2014
Behind the complexity of deaccession is the assumption that museums collect in perpetuity, so there is a strong presumption against disposal. While return or repatriation is sometimes warranted, it is advisable to seek advice, follow a clear process, follow your organisation’s policy, and document your decision-making. Governance approval will be required.
Deaccessioning and disposal come up very regularly, usually accompanied by a grim expression on the face of the enquirer. For many museum people, sticking to policy and ensuring that a deaccession case doesn’t turn to custard or into very negative and damaging publicity can seem almost too hard. It can seem altogether too time consuming and risky, so unwanted items lie accumulating and unwanted in hallways and attics. What is the right way to go about deaccessioning and disposal and what are the risks? There are no short cuts and it may become a difficult area, especially when there is pressure on staff to return or even sell items. Thankfully there are some really useful online resources about how to deal with the issues and get ahead with deaccessioning, so there is no need to reinvent the process through trial and error.
For a thorough exploration of the topic, clear guidelines, and heaps of other useful information, see Collections Law for Australian Archives, Galleries, Libraries and Museums. Having an awareness of procedures and your policies in place are essential so that everyone can clearly see the ethical attitude and procedural detail required.
For help developing a sample policy, see He Rauemi Resorce Guide 16: Acquisition and deaccession policies.
Other checklists and flowcharts:
Is it time to revisit how your museum does things? You could do future museum staff and ratepayers a favour and avoid the need to deaccession or dispose by carefully assessing possible acquisitions against your ethics and collecting policies and with your acquisitions committee when the items are initially offered. Develop strategic regional collecting policies. Each museum can then focus on the significant items that reflect their theme strengths. This will assist in the development of stronger, sustainable museums and collections.
You should think carefully about how the items being offered could be used in the museum for display, education, or research. While many museum personnel comment that they are afraid to upset local donors, they will possibly be more upset in the future if they have to fund a large new museum storage facility through a rates increase, or if there are not enough resources to look after the collection. Show donors your collection policy and explain that although you are very grateful for their offer, items cannot be accepted if they fall outside the guidelines. Having items well cared for, securely and well displayed, or beautifully stored can also show donors how much time and resource is needed to look after collections adequately.
The new Coaltown Museum in Westport, Buller, is a great example of a focused theme museum. The items chosen for the new exhibitions are closely connected to stories of coal mining in the area. The displays are dramatic, multi-layered, and rich with information without overloading the visitor. The museum, which opened in June 2013, is definitely worth a visit. While you are in the area, take some time to go up onto the Denniston plateau with its stunning views, excellent interpretation site, and tunnel ride attraction. Along with the new museum, this is a really interesting full-day trip for tourists and all visitors.
New Coaltown Museum. Image courtesy of Tracy Thompson.
Chris Hartigan, Coaltown Museum Manager says this about their recent development:
‘The Project length was a little over 8 years, from first concept meetings about what to do in the middle of town (the museum was only part of discussions) to opening the doors. I would say progress in years 3 to 5 was slow as other projects – a $25 million sports centre/complex and a $2 million theatre replacement – took precedence.
The original budget when we first started was $2 million. This was for conversion of a council-owned building. However, the theatre was more effective in that building. About year 5 is when detailed design work started. Our budget was revised up to $4 million to include a land and building purchase. This was lowered to $3.75 million after going to tender and we delivered the complete project for around $3.5 million. We still have work to get done in exiting the old building and have already started work on the extension. This will see the permanent display area increased by at least 50%, a dedicated revolving exhibit space, and archival storage. The cost of the extension is unknown at this stage.
My advice to anyone starting a similar sort of project would be to make sure the lead people involved are the right people. They need to be driven and keep each other focused on the goal. These people need to be involved because they believe in the project and can keep personality and self interest out of it. One person can't do it alone – ideally you’d have a small team of core people that can follow through from inception to completion, calling in others as required. Don't get bogged down with negativity and letters to the editor etc, ignore them. There are going to be naysayers and some will be very, very vocal. Believe in what you are doing – confidence is infectious and naysayers will get on board or fall by the wayside. Oh, and a robust business plan doesn't go astray!’
You can hear Chris talk about the Westport project on Radio New Zealand’s Museum Visit – Coaltown. This was a great summer series that focused on smaller museums all over New Zealand.
Denniston Incline coal truck.
Activities in January made for a busy start to the year, with a cataloguing training session at the Canterbury Cultural Collections Recovery Centre for the Canterbury Rugby Football Archive, and then following up on other requests from the area. I was on the West Coast that month, where I visited Coaltown and worked with Julia Bradshaw of the Hokitika Museum. I also worked with staff at History House, thinking through options for a revised layout of the museum in Greymouth, now that it is assured of a medium-term future in the same building.
If your museum committee is thinking how to do things better or wants to do some planning, consider using the New Zealand Museums Standards Scheme resource as a way forward with developing your museum framework.