Disposing of cultural artefacts in university collections
Is the deaccessioning debate the same when valuable art is not involved?
By Giles Waterfield. Web only
Published online: 21 October 2009
Where in London could you find, displayed together, a set of plaster death masks, over-sized pieces of rock, an anonymous portrait of a man in a black coat, a selection of plastic dinosaurs, seven left-footed cowboy boots, the picnic basket belonging to a female relation of Agatha Christie, a hippo skull, 48 rabbit thigh bones, bags and bags of soil samples, cardboard boxes of negatives showing the planets, and an enormous obsolete “Instron” stone-crushing machine from the 1980s? The answer is a chemistry laboratory at University College London (UCL), where the exhibition “Disposal? Rethinking What to Keep in UCL Collections” (19-31 October) is on view. A chamber of museum horrors from the university’s collections, deliberately designed to look rough and ready, poses several questions. Should these things be faithfully retained? Should the whole lot go? Should a system of criteria be developed to judge each possible disposal? Is it the duty of UCL, and comparable institutions, to retain every single object in their care, on the grounds that disposal is intrinsically evil, and that one day everything might come in useful again?
This bizarre exhibition is the idea of Sally MacDonald, head of collections at UCL. On the one hand, UCL’s collections include the distinguished Strang Print Room, the Slade School of Fine Art’s works, Flaxman sculptures, the outstanding Petrie collection of Egyptian art, the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, and a range of other museums scattered across the campus of this large and growing university. On the other, the objects on display exhibit the down side of the collections, including artefacts drawn from archaeological excavations, medical and scientific teaching collections, often with no recognisable purpose.
The exhibition raises again the hot topic of deaccessioning, but nothing could less resemble the current debate about the possible sale of works of art from local authority galleries. Few of the objects on display have any financial value: indeed most individuals or museums would pay not to acquire them.
What MacDonald is seeking to address is the question of whether all objects identified as accessioned museum specimens have to be kept in perpetuity, even when they have no discernible meaning? The problem is particularly acute in a university, founded on the concept of the over-riding value of empirical research, where objects are primarily used for teaching and research rather than public display. Opponents of deaccessioning—and the university is strongly divided on the subject—argue that it is impossible to assess the potential intellectual value of the objects. Thus, the hundreds of bags of soil from the borings made for the Channel Tunnel may, one day, become valuable research materials for researchers. The fact that UCL has run out of space so that it can no longer expand its collections or house objects found in fieldwork is seen as irrelevant.
This is not a new issue. For many years, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum regularly “boarded” objects from its collections—in other words a committee of curators assessed whether they might be disposed of.
In 2003, the National Museums Directors’ Conference raised the subject in a document called “Too Much Stuff”. It concluded that “careful review and rationalisation of collections, leading in some cases to disposal, transfer or long-term loan, can make an important contribution to ensuring that these collections are enjoyed and used”. London’s National Maritime Museum, in particular, has been active in researching and putting in order its huge reserve collections, not infrequently disposing of objects.
Opponents of deaccessioning always point to decisions that have later been regretted. But at UCL and at comparable universities, where collections have often grown haphazardly as a result of individual teaching activities, the question is not one of changing tastes in Venetian Baroque furniture or Victorian paintings, but whether any object that has mysteriously gained the status of a museum specimen should, regardless of any practical considerations, be regarded as untouchable, possessing the status of a relic.
Competent curators must be able to assess the validity and meaning of the objects in their care. They need the knowledge, and the intellectual rigour, to be able not only to add to their collections but, when necessary, to subtract. Keeping bags of soil because one day someone might conceivably want to investigate them is comparable to the elderly person unable to throw anything away because one day it might come in handy.
The public, and in particular the staff and students of UCL, will be invited to cast their vote on which, if any, of five specific objects should go. It is a serious question. This exercise is not only a matter of tidying up cupboards. It addresses the ultimate value of collections as living organisms, and suggests that the healthiest plant is the one that is not only fed but, now and again, pruned.
The writer is guest curator of “The Artist’s Studio”, Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until 13 December.
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