Issues In Dress Collection: Deaccessioning

The responses to my January post on storage issues facing museums with costume collections, were both interesting and insightful. It seems that even more institutions are preparing to move their collections than I had originally anticipated. It became clear, however that a discussion of museum deaccessioning policies was needed (deaccessioning is regularly a part of pre-move collection evaluation). As Lauren mentioned on Monday, many have received notice that Augusta Auctions would be hosting a large auction of items deaccessioned from several reputable museums, including the Brooklyn Museum’s Costume Collections (Auction preview in New York is March 23rd, and the sale is the following day).

Deaccesioned: Printed Lame Opera Cape, Mid-1920s (Augusta Auctions)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “De-accession” did not appear in the English language until the early 1970s.


“trans. To remove an entry for (an exhibit, book) from the accessions register of a museum, library, etc., usu. in order to sell the item concerned. Also absol.

1972 N.Y. Times 27 Feb. II. 21/2 The Museum of Art recently de-accessioned (the polite term for ‘sold’) one of its only four Redons. 1973 Time 26 Feb. 43/2 ‘De-accessioning’ pictures the barbaric  museum jargon for preparing to sell. 1974 J. GOLDMAN Man from Greek & Roman v. 33 You deaccessioned, you took something off your shelves and sold it. 1981 Times 16 Feb. 4/1 The sale of Japanese art included a group of 38 lots of Japanese lacquer ‘recently de-accessioned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York’. 1987 London Rev. Bks. 19 Mar. 5/4 Curators may soon be tempted to start..‘de-accessioning’ what their recent predecessors have..acquired.

Hence as n., the act or process of de-accessioning; de-ac cessioned ppl. a., de-ac cessioning vbl. n.

1973 Newsweek 29 Jan. 76 Richard F. Brown, director of Fort Worth’s Kimbell Museum of Art, felt that..the ‘principle’ of de-accession is right although he might ‘disagree with the particular object chosen for de-accession’. 1973 Art in Amer. Jan.-Feb. 24 In order to illustrate..Mr. Hoving’s policy, he should show all the de-accessioned works. 1973 New Yorker 31 Mar. 83/1 Money gained through sales or ‘de-accessioning’, in museum parlance is often used for acquisitions. 1976 Times Lit. Suppl. 24 Dec. 1604/2 The acquisition by Mellon from the Hermitage of famous paintings… This early twentieth-century instance of sensational ‘de-accessioning’ as it was to be uneuphoniously called by later adepts of the technique.”

Obviously, there is controversy tied up in the notion of a museum vetting its collection. One of the best ways to combat controversy is to have a clear and transparent accession and de-accessioning policy. Whenever money exchanges hands, legal issues arise, and should be considered as well. As with previous posts, my intention here is to provide readers with resources for further research.

Deaccesioned: Embroidered Blue Silk Chinese Export Shawl, Early 20th Cent (Augusta Auctions)

A good discussion of the ethical and budgetary issues associated with de-accessioning are discussed in this article from the San Jose History Association. They outline some key criteria involved when evaluating an object:

  • “the object is not relevant to the museum’s mission,
  • the object has deteriorated beyond usefulness,
  • the object is hazardous to other collections or staff,
  • there are multiple examples of the same object in the collection, and
  • the object is wrongly attributed or fake.”

Example policies can be found by joining the Museum Documents Listserve, along with other useful policies regularly set by museums. An article by Derek Fincham, of Layolla University College of Law, titled “Deaccession of Art and the Public Trust” outlines many of the legal aspects of de-accessioning (but be warned, it is 54 pages long). The National Parks Service discusses it’s policy on Deaccesioning in Volume II of its Museum Handbook. Other resources include a number of books, articles and thesis projects. None of these, however, seems to directly address specific issues relevant to costume and textile collections.

Deaccesioned: Two Pair D'Orsay Evening Shoes, 1920-1930 (Augusta Auctions)

For those currently involved in the deaccessioning/moving process, consider these questions (I encourage you to respond to any in the comments below):

  1. What do you think is the best way to prevent controversy and ethical dilemma’s with respect to de-accessioning?
  2. What is your institutions policy? How does it relate to your museums mission and collection policy?
  3. How often do you de-accession? What is your process for decision-making?
  4. What departments/professions are involved in the decision-making process?
  5. Whom do you notify when de-accessioning?
  6. Do you keep records of items that you have de-accessioned? What sorts of information do you keep?
  7. How does ‘budget’ play into the decision to de-accession an object?
  8. If private individuals purchase the objects, are they given any provenance records? Are they told of any potential contamination? (or are contaminated articles disposed of differently?)
  9. What special concerns apply to de-accessioning articles of dress?
  10. Are employees of the given institution permitted to purchase (or otherwise obtain) de-accessioned items?
  11. What else do you think is important for the Museum community to consider? What do you feel the general public should know?

Additional Resources:

Anderson, Gail. Reinventing the Museum, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift. AltaMira, 2004.

Knell, Simon J.Museums and the Future of Collecting. Ashgate, 2004.

Malaro, Marie. A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections, 2nd Edition. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

Weil, Stephen, ed. A Deaccession Reader. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

Weil, Stephen. Rethinking the Museum: and Other Meditations. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990.

*Deaccesioned: Sophie Pink Satin Damask Ballgown, 1947 (Augusta Auctions)

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1 Comment

  • Abigail September 03, 2010 09.32 pm

    Although I am not currently making these decisionswe had these kinds of discussions in school as museum studies students. From a museums etics standpoint, the money made in a sale should g back into the collections. Meaning the money should be used purchase objects to fill a gap in the collections, better quality objects, or the money should be put towards preserving the rest of the collections.

    It is also unethical to allow museum employees to purchase deacessioned items unless they purchase them at an auction setting, and even then it an be iffy. This prevents the deaccessioning of items specifically so that an employee can own it.

    The criteria you mention are very common. In college I worked at the campus art museum and we also deaccessioned objects that were not up to museum standard. We had recieved hundreds of items from a gentlemen who gave us some high quality pieces, but the majority of the items were tourist quality pieces that had been independently appraised for a lot more money than they were actually worth, We finally went through all the boxes and chose about 50 percent to deaccession. Believe me, we had neither the room nor the need for this stuff. The money made from the auction went back into the collections budget, enabling us to fill gaps in our collection.


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