As a Collections Information Officer at the Science Museum I am responsible for handling the disposal of objects from our collections. From supporting our Curatorial Team in conducting due diligence through to advertising, transferral or disposal I get to be involved in the entire process and so I am highly aware of the ‘devilish nature of disposals’. With large projects looming, I gained valuable insight from colleagues at the Museum of London (MoL) on the challenges of a large-scale rationalisation project but would also like to join them in recognising the satisfaction that can come from transferring objects to new and excited owners.
So, how do Museums go about approaching such a large-scale rationalisation project? What are the key tasks to be completed before presented for disposal? How do we ensure consistency in approach? Well thanks to Lizzie and Naomi from the Museum of London we all have a better idea…..
As a result of a major review of its Social and Working History collections, the Museum of London has identified approximately 6,000 objects for disposal and is now facing the task of researching and presenting disposal cases for approval as well as the physical disposal. Not only do they need to prove the application of due diligence before approval, they then need to approach potential new homes while following ethical guidelines and challenging the negative perception of object disposal. So what steps have they taken to ensure consistency, effectiveness & most importantly public benefit?
Before focusing in on the collections and disposal candidates, the MoL needed to revisit their internal policies to ensure they were up to date and reflected the ethical guidelines outlined in the Museums Association’s Disposals Toolkit. It was also important to consider the Museum’s Collecting Policy as a guiding resource when looking at an object’s relevance to current collecting practices.
With these measures in place they could then begin the task of assessing their collections and identifying objects with suitable reasons for disposal, such as:
· Duplicate material
· Unknown provenance/context
Using these as grounds for disposal the MoL was able to identify approximately 6,000 objects for disposal, which in turn led to the (sometimes tricky) task of proof of ownership and due diligence.
In a perfect world questions such as ‘what is this?’ and ‘where did this come from?’ would not be uttered in a Museum store, but, as we can most likely all attest to….it’s not a perfect world. Tackling the disposal of objects ‘not on inventory’ can be tricky, but as highlighted by MoL, not impossible. As well as applying due diligence to disposal candidates, MoL made use of their collections management system to track the progress of due diligence and further actions needed before approval by the Board of Governors. They also developed a range of questions to be asked of the object to demonstrate the research done:
MoL Collections Management System
Once the objects presented to the Board were approved the Museum then set to work on finding the most appropriate homes for the objects for which, as we know, there is a strict hierarchy to follow:
Museum Association Disposal Toolkit
Although this can be a rather time consuming process it is also a very rewarding one, as highlighted by Lizzie and Naomi. I was particularly interested to hear more about ‘creative disposals’ and the potential interested parties which lie outside of the sector but for which there is also a strong argument for public benefit and keeping objects within the realms of the public domain. Of course these avenues would only be approached after advertising and offering to Accredited and Non-Accredited Museums, but still an interesting option to bear in mind when handling disposals.
Lizzie and Naomi gave an excellent insight into the challenges of a large-scale rationalisation project. At first glance a task of this size can seem daunting but they have demonstrated how a positive approach produces positive results and that disposals don’t always need to be seen as ‘devilish’……..
By Jenni Fewery, Collections Information Officer, Science Museum