Deaccessioning (museum)

A museum registrar examines an artifact.

Deaccessioning is defined as the process by which a work of art or other object is permanently removed from a museum’s collection.[1] Deaccessioning is a practical and constructive tool of collections care that, if practiced thoughtfully supports the long-term preservation of a collection and can help a museum refine the scope of its collection in order to better serve its mission and community.

Deaccession policy

The process undertaken by a museum to deaccession a work involves several steps that are usually laid out in a museum`s Collection Management Policy. The terms under which an object may be considered for removal, as well as the individuals with the authority to approve the process are outlined in the "Deaccession" section of this document.[2] Additionally, this section lays out the legal restrictions and ethic considerations associated with removal of the object and the types of disposal that are appropriate based on the reason for the deaccession.

Decision process

Each museum establishes its own method and workflow for the deaccession process according to its organizational structure. However all object deaccessioning involves the two processing steps of deaccession and disposal.[3][4]

The process begins with the curator creating a document called a "Statement of Justification," which outlines their decision criteria and reasoning for presenting the work as a possible deaccession. In order to determine if a work should be deaccessioned from a museum`s collection, a curator or registrar completes and documents a series of justification steps and then present their findings to the museum director and governing board for final approval.[3]

Deaccession criteria

There are a number of reasons why deaccessioning might be considered. The following is a typical list of criteria for deaccession and disposal:[1]

Deaccession justification steps

The typical steps that need to be taken in order to justify the deaccession and disposal of the work include:[3][4]


Disposal is defined as the transfer of ownership by the museum after a work has been deaccessioned. Following approval of deaccession from the Governing Board and/or the CEO/Museum Director, the work is disposed of and the title of ownership is completely transferred away from the museum or terminated. The method chosen is determined by the physical condition of the work, the intrinsic value or cultural value of the work and extrinsic value or monetary value of the work. With all methods of disposal, museums are charged to maintain and retain all records of the object, its deaccession and disposal.

The process of disposal is completed through the following methods:[2][3]

Deaccession and museum ethics

Several professional museum associations have drafted codes of ethics governing the practice of deaccession.Two majors areas of ethical concern that are common in these codes of ethics are the prohibition of sale or transfer of collection items to museum trustees, staff, board members, or their relatives and the need to restrict the use of proceeds from any works disposed of via sale or auction.[5]

The first of these ethical concerns is rather straight forward. The second has become a point of contention in recent years since museums and cities, like Detroit have been struggling with financial shortfalls.

According to the AAMD (The Association of Art Museum Directors): "Funds received from the disposal of a deaccessioned work shall not be used for operations or capital expenses. Such funds, including any earnings and appreciation thereon, may be used only for the acquisition of works in a manner consistent with the museum’s policy on the use of restricted acquisition funds."[1]

According to the AAM (the American Association of Museums): "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."[6]

According to the AASLH (the American Association for State and Local History): "Collections shall not be deaccessioned or disposed of in order to provide financial support for institutional operations, facilities maintenance, or any reason other than the preservation or acquisition of collections."[7]

According to ICOM (the International Council of Museums): Proceeds should be applied solely to the purchase of additions to museum collections.[8]

These associations have each determined to their own degree that all proceeds from sale or auction should be restricted to the future acquisition of collection objects and/ or to the ongoing maintenance of current collection holdings. Their decision and perspective on the practice of deaccession reflects a long-term view of museum collections as items held in public trust and preserved for access, appreciation, education, and enjoyment of not only today`s public but the future public. See Public trust doctrine

Views on deaccessioning

Deaccessioning is a controversial topic and activity, with diverging opinions from artists, arts professionals and the general public.[9] Some commentators, such as Donn Zaretsky of The Art Law Blog critique the notion of "the public trust" and argue that deaccessioning rules should probably be thrown out altogether.[10] Others, such as Susan Taylor, director of the New Orleans Museum of Art and the AAMD's current president, believes that proceeds from the sale or funds from the deaccession can only be used to buy other works of art.[11]


  1. 1 2 3 Report from the AAMD Task Force on Deaccessioning. 2010. AAMD Policy on Deaccessioning. The Association of American Museum Directors, June 9, 2010. Retrieved from Accessed November 14th 2015.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Malaro, M. and I.P. DeAngelis (2012). A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections. Chp. 5: The Disposal of Objects. pp.248-272. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Buck, Rebecca A.; Gilmore, Jean Allman (2010). "3I: Deaccessioning". Museum Registration Methods (5 ed.). Washington, D.C.: The AAM Press, American Association of Museums. p. 100-107. ISBN 978-0-8389-1122-8.
  4. 1 2 "National Park Service - Museum Management Program". Retrieved 2015-11-26.
  5. Weil, Stephen E. A Deaccession Reader. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 1997.
  6. Code of Ethics for Museums, AAM. Washington DC. 1994, p. 9
  7. A Statement of Professional Ethics, American Association for State and Local History, Nashville, Tennessee, 1992.
  8. Lewis, Geoffrey (Jan 2003). "Deaccessioning and ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums" (PDF). ICOM News. ICOM News.
  9. Pogrebin, Robin (2011-01-26). "Museums Draw Scrutiny When They Sell Artworks". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-12-12.
  10. "AAMD Rules Need to be Deaccessioned - News - Art in America". Retrieved 2015-12-12.
  11. "As Museums Try To Make Ends Meet, 'Deaccession' Is The Art World's Dirty Word". Retrieved 2015-12-12.
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