Deaccessioning Defined

Rachel Hewitt

There has been some recent art world drama surrounding the deaccessioning and sale of works by major museums, but let’s first discuss what exactly this means. As mentioned in this article (part of our “What is a Museum” series), one of the criteria for American Association of Museums accreditation, is that 80% of a museum’s collection must be formally accessioned, and that an appropriate percentage of the permanent collection be catalogued, inventoried, and visually documented. But what about the reverse process – not the accumulation or art, but getting rid of artwork that no longer serves the institution? Let’s break it down.

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What is accessioning?

The AAM defines accessioning as follows:

  • Formal act of accepting an object or objects to the category of materials that a museum holds in the public trust.
  • The creation of an immediate, brief, and permanent record utilizing a control number for an object or group of objects added to the collection from the same source at the same time, and for which the museum has custody, right, or title. Customarily, an accession record includes, among other data, the accession number; date and nature of acquisition (gift, excavation, expedition, purchase, bequest, etc.); source; brief identification and description; condition; provenance; value; and name of staff member recording the accession.

When considering accessioning a work of art, a museum will consider a variety of factors, including, but are not necessarily limited to: relevance to the museum’s mission, authenticity, legal provenance, donor restrictions, and the resources and ability to properly maintain the piece into the future. A system of documentation is to be implemented for ALL new acquisitions, even temporary ones, which includes the aforementioned information.

One might ask if museum storage systems become overwhelmed. For many major art museums, only a small percentage of work is actually on display at one time. This is why making the decision to accession works must be taken very seriously, as it is a legal agreement to care for and retain the work indefinitely unless it is deaccessioned for one of the reasons we will discuss below, which do not include “Spring Cleaning.”

What is deaccessioning?

Deaccessioning is, obviously, the opposite of accessioning, but clearly there’s more to it than that. Deaccessioning a work of art is a serious undertaking, and according to the Association of Art Museum Directors, has two fundamental principles.

  • “The decision to deaccession is made solely to improve the quality, scope, and appropriateness of the collection, and to support the mission and long-term goals of the museum.”
  • “Proceeds from a deaccessioned work are used only to acquire other works of art—the proceeds are never used as operating funds, to build a general endowment, or for any other expenses.”1

Some factors considered in the process include whether or not the work has been determined as a forgery, whether or not the work’s legality has come into question2, whether the work is a duplicate of another in the collection, or whether the work is in poor condition.

In some rare cases, works may be deaccessioned if they’ve been deemed no longer in accordance with a museum’s mission, but in most cases a museum’s mission would have to change significantly in order for this to happen.

The deaccessioning process must always be conducted in light of the museum’s collections management policy, and never in a reactionary fashion, due to a particular incident or situation.

The American Association of Museums Code of Ethics takes the position that “in no event shall they [deaccessioning proceeds] be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.” This means the funds can be used for the purchase of new works or restoration of physical works of art within the current collection, but not for expenses such as operating costs, building renovations, or debts.

This seems somewhat cut and dry, but sometimes interesting issues can arise in the accessioning and deaccessioning processes. What if a donor wants to donate an entire grouping of works, but a museum only wants a painting or two? What if a museum is less than transparent in its deaccessioning process? Do museums fail to follow the fundamental principles of the deaccessioning process? We will discuss these and other specific instances in the accessioning and deaccessioning process in an upcoming article.

1 These principles are taken from the AAMD document, Museums and the Practice of Deaccessioning

2 Examples of cases where legality comes into play might include works unlawfully appropriated during the Nazi era, or ancient works whose countries of origin view them to have been unethically obtained.