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?”
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.