Museum Life: The big “D”


As a continuation of last month’s post on Museum and Labor, this month’s post will reflect upon museum activities impacted by or resulting from external economic forces, the ramping up or dwindling of museum resources, or internal changes in museum directives.

The museum collections themselves are sometimes not immune to economic pressures or cuts or diversions in revenue sources and museum priorities. Garments within the museum are removed from the commercial environment and are held in the public trust, but still are imbued with monetary value by virtue of their inclusion in the collections. The public often does not think about museum collection pieces as commodities, but they are objects that have a range of value which can fluctuate over time.  Costumes and clothing essentially do not have a fixed, tangible monetary value until they hit the marketplace, which happens often.

Deaccessioning most often occurs when there is a change in the museum’s mission or the direction of the collecting department and the attendant reallocation of funds for newly specified kinds of material. The cost of care and resources needed for maintenance of collection items which are deemed out-of-scope of a collecting imperative is weighed against the benefit to the museum, its publics, and the material itself.  According to ICOM (The International Council of Museums) and AAM (The American Alliance of Museums) guidelines, it is unethical to put the funds from a sale of collection items towards anything other than new acquisitions or collection care, not regular operating expenses.  Museums such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) are extraordinarily, and admirably, transparent about this process, with a deaccessioning database open and available to the public on their website.

Deaccessioning has been discussed before at Worn Through, and past posts by Heather and Ingrid give a good overview of the reasons why museums deaccession, the criteria for doing so, what happens after deaccessioning, and what are the potential benefits for the museum. Even more conversation-provoking was an exhibition of deaccessioned historical garments in an abandoned apartment, Tattered and Torn, reviewed at Worn Though by Melissa in 2012.

Artists have responded to the act of deaccessioning in recent years.  I am reminded of a project in 2009 by artist Robert Fontenot, who bought garments from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) costume and textile collection at a Bonhams & Butterfields auction and remade them into objects completely unrelated to their original function.  For example, a Claire McCardell dress became three witches hats, and a pair of Guatemalan trousers transformed into two stuffed bears (see image above); Fontenot embroidered the accession number onto each new object, mischievously retaining the connection to the museum collection. Named “Recycle LACMA“, Fontenot’s project commented on how these garments had ceased to exist as objects of cultural and historical value within the museum environment, and were exchanged for generally low monetary value.  With their ejection from the museum, the garment no longer belongs to everyone.

It is a conundrum for the museum–as part of the museum collection, garments in various states and levels of perceived value could be publicly accessible, but more likely are kept solely in storage, away from the public view. I cannot help but wonder if Fontenot’s project had centered around paintings, artist’s books, or sculpture, would he have been as willing to dismantle and reassemble them into new objects?  Were costumes an easy target, or simply a pliable, colorful medium with which to playfully and subversively call attention to the changed state of the deaccessioned object, from a change in ownership to a change in their original, functional nature? LACMA curator of contemporary art, Rita Gonzalez, reflected on Fontenot’s project as “a joyful but biting call to all collecting museums to think more radically about recirculating these objects back into the creative community” (Jackson:2009). This project does contemplate a new life for deaccessioned items in a very unexpected and thought-provoking way, running contrary to Western views of physical continuity and permanence (I am thinking in particular of examples like the constant tearing down and rebuilding of particular buildings at the Ise Grand Shrine in Japan every 20 years, replacing them with exact replicas).

As quoted in last month’s Museum Life post, The American Alliance of Museum’s annual “TrendsWatch” report for 2014 stated that “access” over “possession” is a main motivator for Millennials within a new and emerging “exchange culture”.  Museums, the study recommends, should focus on experiences and creative ways for the public to interact with collection material.

With the fashion exhibition, there is certainly a link between the desire to possess, touch, or wear a garment, especially in the case of contemporary fashion. Deaccessioned garments find their way to private collectors, theaters, film productions, other museum collections, or spaces in teaching collections. Direct interactions within the museum environment, such as touching or trying on, will ultimately require deaccession for the pieces to be ethically handled.  With the Millennial generation desiring “experience” instead of material things, could deaccessioned garments be used for the public to actually try on and wear, be made available to various organizations, or could museums actively and willingly collaborate with artists to create new pieces?  What are the potentials for deaccessioned garments and how will museums think about their creative or best uses into the future?

Sources cited:

Jackson, Candace (4 Septmember 2009), “An Artist Transforms a Museum’s Leftovers”, The Wall Street Journal, Accessed at :

Merritt, Elizabeth (2014). TrendsWatch 2014.  American Alliance of Museums.

Image source: Pair of stuffed bears refashioned by Robert Fontenot from a pair of Guatemalan trousers formerly in LACMA’s collection, image via The Wall Street Journal,

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