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The Third Rail of Museum Ethics: Selling Collections to Pay for…What?

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Is it ethical for a museum to use the money it gets from selling collections to fund general operations?

How about using the proceeds from the sale for “preservation” (the term used by AASLH’s Statement of Professional Standards and Ethics) or “direct care” (cf. AAM’s Code of Ethics for Museums)? Does preservation or direct care include fixing the roof? Hiring a conservator? Paying the salary of your collections manager?

According to Financial Accounting Standards Board regulations (and those of its government counterpart, GASB), using the funds from deaccessioning for anything other than buying more collections means the museum has to capitalize the whole collection, an action that some parts of the field believes to be unethical in and of itself.

Of the six issues CFM and the Institute for Museum Ethics are exploring in Round Three of Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics, the question of what ethical constraints should be placed on the use of funds resulting from deaccessioning is far and away the most contentious. Museums have been arguing about this issue for decades. Is anything different now? Perhaps yes. The unprecedented financial pressure facing museums is apparently leading more boards and directors to ask, “What good does it do to firewall the collection if the museum itself is going broke?”

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So maybe the national fiscal meltdown will transform the constraints we, as a field, have placed on the use of funds resulting from deaccessioning collections. This change could go either way—faced with increased pressure to raise money whatever way possible, the field might tighten its standards, closing the loopholes left by nebulous words like “preservation” and “direct care,” or it might abandon the existing standards as unaffordable luxuries in the face of economic necessity.

So, in Round Three we cut to the chase and ask:

In the next 25 years, are the restrictions placed on the use of funds resulting from deaccessioning likely to become more or less restrictive? How and why will the restrictions change? 

In other words, is there now—or will there be in the future—enough consensus of opinion on the topic for the field to revisit the standards and reexamine how all “good” museums should behave regarding deaccessioning?

Please weigh in on this issue—either using the comments section below or (even better) using this link to access the public version of Round Three of the ethics forecast, where you can address this and other issues.

If you are just now reading our forecast, you can get up to speed by reading earlier posts about the project.

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  1. I'm sure there's plenty of back-story I don't know about, but it seems ludicrous to me that Board regulations would dictate that "using the funds from deaccessioning for anything other than buying more collections means the museum has to capitalize the whole collection".

    In light of the current social and economic situations, many museums are moving toward viewing collections as a whole and intentionally making them tighter and more focused.

    It makes sense, then, to allow the sale of superfluous or fringe items to fund better care and presentation of other vital and valuable items already in one's collection.

    The point made in the article about safeguarding a collection that may soon be out of a home because critical expenses can't be paid is also highly valid.

    Either way, it seems the question should be addressed at the museum level to reflect the size, facility, collection and stated purpose of an individual museum.

  2. Jamie–here is the position of FASB, as well as I can state it: they would prefer that museums account for collections as capital assets. However, in response to vociferous advocacy from the field, they reluctantly granted a narrow exemption–if the collections are really outside the marketplace, they have to stay outside the marketplace. But they won't let museums have their cake and eat it too. If a museum treats any part of the collection as a financial asset (converting it to cash used for any purpose other than acquiring new collections) then FASB requires the museum value and report on all of the collections as financial assets.

  3. Is it absolutely not ethical for a museum to use the money it gets from selling collections to fund general operations. The guiding principals should always be to accept items that fulfill the mission of the organization. If an item of the collection does not meet that standard, then the priority should be the following: 1) return it to the donor, 2) if no donor is available, then transfer to another organization that is a fitting recipient, or 3) only as an absolute last resort, sell the item and deposit the funds in a dedicated account for acquisition of new items or direct care of the existing collection.

    As someone who has witnessed first hand the catastrophe that can be caused by an inexperienced board viewing their collections as a cash cow to fund misguided exhibits, I believe it is imperative that the loopholes be closed and the standards for a ‘good’ museum be defined as those that consider their collections off limits.

    I think the real issue to address in the future is the need for better training of the volunteer based boards who are elected to run many of the smaller museums around the country. Unfortunately, the trend has been to elect directors with business backgrounds versus formal museum training, and because of that the boards do not appreciate or understand the purpose of their collections. Many directors do not appreciate the value of research and preservation. They only see dollar signs. If an item is of high value they think it is sellable. If an item is not pristine, they feel it is not worth keeping. As a result the museums are being managed more like galleries or antique stores. It would be wise to set forth a standard to require at least one formally trained person in the field of museum collection management on the board of every institution.

    During tough economic times, the need for preservation of collections is all the more immediate and should be viewed as a priority not a luxury.

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