Deaccession: /ˌdēakˈseSHən/ verb, to officially remove an item from a museum’s collection.
For museum professionals, especially those who work directly with collections, this word is relatively commonplace and frequently utilized. If you are not plugged into the museum world, though, you may have never heard this term before. In fact, the term itself is fairly new. The first known use of the word “deaccession” was in 1972 – the year in which deaccessioning and its related ethics were brought to the forefront with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Hoving Affair”. (You can read more about that event here.)
For those of us who work with museum collections, deaccessioning means removing certain items from a museum’s holdings. There are various reasons for doing this. For us at Lexington Historical Society, items are typically considered for deaccession if they do not directly pertain to Lexington and its history. Or, items are sometimes deaccessioned if we have numerous copies of the same item (as is sometimes the case with books or pamphlets), since it is archival best practice to keep only about three to five copies of a specific item.
Lest anyone be concerned that we are spontaneously removing items from our collection, rest assured that we are not!! Deaccessioning is not a simple process, and for good reason. Removing items from the collection is something that takes a lot of time and consideration. The required criteria and steps for deaccessioning are detailed in our Collections Management Policy, which is a policy that most collections-based institutions have in some form. Our policy includes specifics concerning criteria for deaccessioning, the procedure for deaccessioning (including who can approve a deaccession), the process for disposition of materials, and any required related documentation. Each item that is a candidate for deaccession is carefully considered by staff, the Collections Committee, and the Board of Directors. Thus, no items would or could ever be carelessly removed.
Items that are deaccessioned due to their lack of a Lexington connection are often sent to an institution where they might be more relevant. For example, if we have a book about the Old North Bridge, we might contact the Special Collections at Concord Public Library.
On occasion, deaccessioned items may be brought to an auction house for sale. In these cases where items from a museum’s collections are sold for profit, it is important to consider the appropriate use of any income received from these deaccessioned materials. At Lexington Historical Society, we make sure that any funds received from deaccessioning collections are directly channeled into collections and their care. This is the standard accepted by several professional museum organizations, and thus it is our standard, too. (You can read more about this in American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Code of Ethics for Museums under the “Collections” heading here.)
Though this seems straightforward, there is often a debate concerning whether funds from deaccessioning can be used for institutional survival or a museum’s financial well-being. After all, is it worth retaining these invaluable, cultural items if there is no institution to house them in the end? (You can read more about this debate here.) While this is a valid point, we want to ensure that museum ethics and building public trust are at the forefront of everything that we do.
This might all make deaccessioning, when done properly, seem straight forward, organized, and ethical. This is certainly the goal of having and enforcing of these types of policies! As deaccessioning is often a necessary procedure for museums, archives, and libraries, following these policies is crucial. The staff here at Lexington Historical Society want you to know that we take the custodial care and maintenance of our collections very seriously, and we make it a priority to hold ourselves to the highest of ethical standards when assessing the items in our holdings.
-Elizabeth Mubarek, Archives Manager