AAMG shares the concern voiced by museums and museum organizations across the U.S. and internationally over the unfortunate development regarding the collections of the Monroe Museum of Natural History at the University of Louisiana. We urge the university’s administration to reconsider its timetable that could ultimately lead to the destruction of a valuable scholarly collection. We encourage those responsible for the fate of these collections to engage the museum staff, university faculty, including members of its faculty senate, and outside museum and collections professionals in identifying a thoughtful plan that will assure the care and use of these specimens for educational purposes and the public good.
While we recognize the financial challenges facing universities across our country – and especially state institutions, whose government allocations are increasingly diminished – we ask our university and college administrators to consider why collections, like those of the Monroe Museum of Natural History, are part of their purview. The understanding and appreciation of our human and world history, in all its manifestations, are critical to our educational enterprise. These works, representing our common heritage, teach us how to be better, more intelligent and compassionate human beings. Nothing can do this as powerfully as objects from our past and present.
AAMG will release its Professional Practices for Academic Museums document in June, but what follows is language from our near-final draft regarding “Retrenchment or Downsizing.” Please share this with your colleagues and supervisors. We also encourage those at the University of Louisiana who would like to follow these professional practices to contact our organization for guidance.
From the Professional Practices Document: Retrenching and Downsizing
An academic museum may, at times, be faced with a reduction in its operations due to its financial situation or that of the university. Any budget reductions required by the parent institution should be compatible with reductions in other areas of the university, i.e., the museum should not be singled out for more reductions than other areas. In the case of budget reductions, the museum should focus on its ability to fulfill its mission and serve its community, and take into careful consideration the effect of its actions on its staff, stakeholders, and the collections held in public trust.
Collections often receive special scrutiny during retrenchment either because of the expense of maintaining them appropriately or because of their potential as financial assets.
In considering how to address collections during retrenchment, all parties should recognize that collections are held in trust for the public. A primary responsibility of the museum and governing authority is to safeguard this trust. The museum may determine that it is unable, in the long run, to appropriately care for some parts of its collections. In such cases, the most responsible action may be to deaccession and transfer material to another suitable caretaker in an orderly manner that safeguards the collections and their documentation. Museums may carefully consider whether it is appropriate for the material to remain in the public domain at another museum or nonprofit institution or whether it can responsibly be placed through public sale.
Deaccessioning should never be a fast or simple solution. It may take a great deal of time and other resources to research the material in question, determine its provenance, identify any restrictions on the title and arrange for an appropriate and safe transfer. In the short run, it may actually require additional expenditures on the part of the museum to conduct the necessary research, prepare the documentation, arrange for disposition and affect the transfer. Deaccessioning is part of a long-term, thoughtful decision on the part of the museum about how best to fulfill its mission with available resources. It is conducted in accordance with standards and best practices in the field, and with the museum’s own code of ethics, collections planning and collections policies.
AAMG recognizes that different museum organizations provide different guidelines for the use of deaccessioning funds. AAMG recommends that funds from deaccessioning only be used for new collections acquisitions, unless the museum is no longer acquiring objects, in which case such funds may be used for the care of the existing collection. It does, however, recognize that the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) specifies that history museums can use such funds for acquisition or preservation.
Because collections are vital to the mission of most museums, AAMG urges museums and their parent institutions to examine all possibilities for preserving and making accessible their collections rather than dismantling them.