As any museum director will tell you, deaccessioning is not quite as simple as cleaning out one’s closets and holding a yard sale. Museums as a whole have a mission to acquire, conserve, and exhibit collections for the benefit of their communities. Reducing the number of artworks or artifacts seems almost antithetical. The decision to sell some of the objects in a museum’s collection is a complex one; condition, authenticity, redundancy, and donor restrictions are just a few of the factors in deciding to deaccess, particularly when an object is one that ought to remain available to the public.
The pressure to downsize can sometimes stem from the impossibility of exhibiting the full scope of a museum’s collections. Michael O’Hare, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, estimates that as much as 90% of major museums’ collections are languishing in storage, never included in an exhibit seen by the public. He argues that unseen artworks have no real value. “Aside from maybe someday appearing in a scholarly article… just how are these works creating cultural value if no one is looking at them?” O’Hare asks.
Everyone agrees that museums exist, in large part, to exhibit their art and artifacts, but exhibit space is at a premium. Exhibits require sufficient space for each object to be appreciated on its own, and the size of any exhibit is limited by the museum’s footprint. Adding to the spatial challenge is the amount of space required for a museum’s storage. Sometimes a large percentage of a museum’s total area has to be devoted to the safe and secure storage of its unique collections.
And that storage space might in fact be the place where additional exhibit space can be found. Well-designed high density storage systems can condense a storage footprint by as much as 80%. Compact shelving and racking systems eliminate fixed aisles and adjust to accommodate the wide variety of shapes and sizes of collected objects. By clawing back some inefficiently-used storage space, museums can find themselves with room to expand their exhibits.
With the ability to display more of their collections, museums are better able to fulfill their mission. Deaccessioning, as defined by the Association of Art Museum Directors, will always be part of managing a museum’s collection. But with efficiently-used storage space, more works can be retained and displayed for the education and enjoyment of the public.
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