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5 January 2021

Selling for Survival – Part 2

By Amalyah Keshet, Senior Consultant

Photo by Ula Kuźma on Unsplash

There is a fascinating episode of Malcom Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History” that begins with the story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s financial crisis of 2018. The museum, which owns some 2 million items, mostly in remote storage facilities and literally never seen, was for the first time contemplating an obligatory entrance fee as one step towards survival. An accountant looking at the Met’s balance sheet enquired about the value of those 2 million items. No value was recorded, the Met explained, because museums never consider collections as assets.[i]

And here we are, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, dealing again with the very same struggle to keep museums alive. 

In December 2020, the ARCSchat podcast “Dragon Psychology 102: Experts React to Revisionist History” took on Gladwell’s podcast, podcasting a pod-review.  Also fascinating. ARCS is the (North American) Association of Registrars and Collection Specialists. You can catch the episode and the fascinating discussion here, plus there further links to articles and documentation.

Regarding the Royal Academy deaccession threat I mentioned in my last post, Dan Hicks, a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum and author of a new book on the Benin Bronzes (stay tuned for more on that), posted on Twitter: “When the Royal Academy [suggests selling] the Taddei Tondo to save 150 jobs, it will be another urgent reminder that museums aren’t bank vaults, mausoleums or endpoints – but public spaces, unfinished gestures and live projects. And that we must place caring for people above caring for objects.”[ii]

Sharon Heal, Director of the Museums Association, commented “The MA Code of Ethics says that collections should be not normally be treated as financial assets. However, we live in exceptional times and we have to balance the principle of safeguarding collections with the principle that we should use collections for public benefit, which is also enshrined in the code. “We can only do the latter if we have the staff, skills and programmes that can bring collections alive and connect them with communities. We are facing difficult decisions in our museums, I hope we can use the Code of Ethics to discuss these issues openly, with our staff, trustees and the public.”[iii]

The Baltimore Museum have released a statement following their deaccessioning “scandal”, as I previously mentioned, “We do not abide by notions that museums exist to serve objects; we believe the objects in our collection must reflect, engage, and inspire the many different individuals that we serve”.[iv]

Nicolas Serota, chairman of Art Council England, recently commented on the importance of works going to UK museums via AIL (Acceptance in Lieu) and CGS (Culture Gifts Scheme) this year:

“The next few years are going to be a challenging time for the cultural sector and private benefaction will be particularly important if our world-class museums, galleries, libraries and archives are to survive”.[v]  

However, it’s hard to understand how these new acquisitions will help museums “survive.” The works will require storage, framing, conservation treatment, digitisation, curatorial research, security, and all the other expenses of collections care.  It is in fact the lack of funds for those and other basic resources (including staffing), not a lack of new acquisitions, which has driven museums to consider selling works from their collections. Furthermore:

“Historically, works of art have been in the possession of different parties at different times. Some (e.g. frescoes) were permanently attached to public and private buildings, some in private collections, some in public spaces. In general, works were bought and sold frequently as personal fortunes waxed and waned and tastes changed. Since the development of the modern museum in the 19th century, however, an implicit assumption pervading the world of plastic arts is that the terminal state of any valuable work must be in the hands of a museum, an assumption that has become tied to competition among museums to accumulate larger and more distinguished collections. Looked at afresh, this end-state view of art is rather puzzling, as though symphony orchestras asserted a right to accumulate and own copyright in all classical music, including music they chose not to perform.”[vi] Michael O’Hare, Capitalizing Museum Collections, p. 10

So, is deaccessioning and sale a legitimate or an unethical solution in times of financial crisis? Are we adjusting to a new philosophy of collecting, based on a new recognition of ethical (race, minorities, post-colonialism) and financial vulnerabilities? Discussion is popping up everywhere including, inevitably, in the popular press.  The storerooms are open and the cat is out of the proverbial bag.  We may be witnessing a pivotal moment in museum practice.


Worth noting if you’re irresistibly drawn to this subject: Last summer, MuseumsEtc invited international submissions for essays and case studies for forthcoming book, Deaccessioning in a Post-Pandemic World, edited by Stefanie Jandl, Mark Gold, and Julia Courtney. A release date has yet to be confirmed but when that happens, selected chapters of the book will be made available for free online.[vii]


[i] http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/42-dragon-psychology-101 

[ii] https://twitter.com/profdanhicks/status/1307625144458850306

[iii] https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/2020/09/royal-academy-has-no-intention-of-selling-michelangelo-sculpture-to-save-jobs/

[iv] https://hyperallergic.com/597952/baltimore-museum-of-art-auction-canceled

[v] https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/record-uk-government-gift-loan-tax-in-lieu

[vi] https://gspp.berkeley.edu/assets/uploads/research/pdf/SSRN-id1262403.pdf 

[vii] https://arthist.net/archive/23148


© Naomi Korn Associates, 2020. Some Rights Reserved. The text is licensed for use under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike Licence (CC BY SA)

Disclaimer: The material in this blog post is for general information only and is not legal advice. Always consult a qualified lawyer about a specific legal problem.