The Baltimore Museum of Art, which has recently decided to deaccession and sell some of its collection, including works by Andy Warhol, to increase its representation of women and people of color in its collection (photograph by Eli Pousson (2018) via Wikimedia Commons)
5Collections, the very heart of the work of museums, have long been one of the major issues the American museum field has grappled with. It was no different in the 19th century as American museums first built their collections. Nor was it in 1942, when Theodore Low published The Museum as a Social Instrument, in which he castigated museums for focusing on collections instead of an educational mission.
Deaccessioning — the permanent removal of objects and/or art from a museum’s collection — has been at the forefront of many discussions of museums of late. Some institutions, such as the Baltimore Museum of Art, are selling works and using those funds to improve the diversity of artists in their collection. Others, like the Berkshire Museum, will use the proceeds from the sale of 40 art works to carry out museum operations, including a plan to shift the museum’s focus away from art.
These decisions run counter to the ethical standards of the museum profession, most notably those articulated by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). Their code of ethics statement notes: “Proceeds from the sale of nonliving collections are to be used consistent with the established standards of the museum’s discipline, but in no event shall they be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.” For this reason, both AAM and the Association of Art Museum Directors have censured the Berkshire Museum.