‘Use it or lose it’

7 February 2004

Museums should not forget their primary role, says Tiffany Jenkins

The future of thousands of artefacts sitting in the basements of museums across the country is under threat. A senior museum professional recently floated a policy entitled ‘Use it or lose it’ at a major conference. The institution would be asked to let the object go if it languished out of the way ‘unused’. ‘Either sell it, send it elsewhere or destroy it,’ he said with a shrug and a smile.

The proposal was meant to be provocative and controversial but it went down well with the audience. ‘We are already doing it,’ proclaimed one member. ‘Just let us try,’ demanded another. They were keen to start selling and swapping their collections before they even got out of the hall.

This proposal is reinforced by a gentler report, charmingly titled and issued by the National Museum Directors Conference (NMDC). In ‘Too much stuff?’ it is argued that ‘Careful review and rationalisations of collections, leading in some cases to disposal, transfer or long-term loan, can make an important contribution to ensuring these collections are enjoyed and used.’

The de-accessioning of collections has, until lately, been anathema to the museum community. The power of UK national museums and galleries to do so is limited by the different Acts of Parliament that established them. On the whole, they are only allowed to dispose of objects by sale or exchange of gift when it is a duplicate of another in the collection. Or when, in the opinion of the board, it is unsuitable for retention in their collection and can be disposed of, but only if this is not to the detriment of the interests of students and the public, a situation considered rare.

There are good reasons for these restrictions. The role of the museums is to record, preserve and understand the objects for the public — past, current and future. The institution holds them in care for all of us, and for generations to come. It is not their place to sell the ‘stuff’ off. Doing so will compromise their work and fundamental role.

Private collections form the basis of museums around the country. In most cases individuals donated to a specific museum, perhaps to fill gaps in the current collection, or just because they liked the place. Items are given on the understanding that the museum will care for them in the long term. The future of donations may be jeopardised by altering the integrity of the collection. The John Rylands University Library in Manchester lost an important loan collection after the sale of books in 1988. It has found it hard to attract donations since then.

The fate of artefacts should be kept away from the demands of the purse or politics. That way they are free from being manipulated by politicians or by threats to a collection in a funding crisis. Museums are not shops or businesses. They were founded in order to ensure the survival of and research into artefacts, manuscripts and works of art. Short-term financial gain would be achieved at the expense of the fundamental purpose of the institution.

It is not always predictable in the present what will be regarded as interesting in the future. What is fashionable now may not be so in two, ten, 20 or 200 years. There should be restrictions on getting rid of what is unpopular to replace it with what is. Institutions that have let objects go in the past have regretted it decades later. ‘An act of irrevocable rashness’ is how Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery’s Collecting Policy 2003–8 characterises the sale of their collections of South Asian and Far Eastern metalwork in the 1950s.

The idea that the artefacts are not ‘used’ is at the heart of the demands to allow removal. This notion focuses on display or public involvement. While many artefacts are covered in dust unseen for decades, those who complain do not understand the extent and various uses these objects are put to. Display is not the only use of a collection — many collections are just too large to be displayed in their entirety. Despite this, they are priceless as sources of knowledge, treasuries of ideas and evidence from the past. Successful display and education comes out of the work on the artefacts behind the scenes.

Different copies of the same engraving by the same artist should not necessarily grace the walls for all to see. But under scrutiny they can reveal the development of the image and the ideas of the creator. Visitors to the British Museum may not want to wade through the 700,000 coins in its collection. Nevertheless coins are a primary source of information about many aspects of ancient and mediaeval study. And they should be kept together for ease of comparison, so researchers don’t have to travel to different parts of the country or the world to do so.

In 2001, more than 13,000 people used the study rooms at the British Museum, 14,500 flocked into those at the Imperial War Museum. The Natural History Museum loaned 50,000 specimens to more than 4,000 scientists. Researchers searched among the pots, papers and samples to know more. The Imperial War Museum has 120 million feet of film and six million photographs. The Museum of London stores finds from over 5,000 excavations including 140,000 boxes of bulk finds from London and over 250,000 individually registered finds. The V&A holds one million prints and drawings and 80,000 textiles.

Much of this material may be in bad condition and is possibly useless to anyone. Some items may have been ignored for decades and could be for many more. But some may shed light on the past, whether they reveal details about printing procedures, or the development of pattern and texture.

We don’t know if these objects will ever reveal anything interesting. But we should err on the side of caution that they might. And if they don’t speak to us maybe they will tell truths to future generations who will ask different questions or see things in a new light. That something is not actively used in the here and now is no reason to discard it in a narrow, utilitarian fashion.

Of course institutions could do more with their stores. The fantastic King’s Library at the British Museum was created with 4,500 objects most of which were taken from storage. The Darwin collection at the Natural History Museum provides behind-the-scenes access for visitors. Both show the potential of using material that had been put away.

The Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery’s Collecting Policy 2003–8 makes the pertinent point: ‘it is not only fashions that change…the society in which a museum serves can also change’. In fact it is the changing role of the museum that is at the heart of the discussion around de-acessioning today and also why the calls to do so should be ignored.

Museums are facing a crisis of purpose. They are deemed irrelevant if they don’t modernise and make their work contribute to social causes. Directors and curators are frequently chastised for being ‘object fetishists’. Under attack and uncertain themselves they are grappling around for a purpose. The vital commitment and responsibility to the collection is being lost while they search for justification.

This process threatens the current and future collection policy, reflected in an uncertainty about what to consider important enough to keep, or irrelevant and to discard. The profession is turning on the collection, asking the objects to prove their worth, as they no longer can.

At a time when museums have never been more unsure of what they are for they should be kept away from selling off the ‘stuff’. Loosening the restrictions will mean more than getting rid of a few odd and old things. It will change the core mission of the museum for the worse.

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