Collection Significance

North Otago Museum textile store

In the past Museums often collected indiscriminately, becoming a bit like community attics. This applies right from major international museums to small regional museums such as the North Otago Museum and Archive. The reasons for this are partly about the philosophy of early museums – they existed as an indication of the relative status of a community and status was ranked according to size and breadth of the collection. Another reason is that many Museums were staffed by people with inadequate training in museum practice standards.

Nowadays Museums focus more on being relevant for the communities they serve, by caring for objects which tell important and unique stories about the community over time. Appropriate training is also now available to all levels of Museum staff together with national network and support systems.

Museums also need to consider practical issues like sustainability. For example is the rate of growth of a collection and the consequent pressures upon storage space within acceptable ratepayer costs and will the Museum be able to continue to afford to properly store, look after and provide appropriate public access to these collections over time.

Except in the case of Māori Taonga (which are governed by different rules through legislation enacted to honour the Treaty of Waitangi) when a Museum accepts an object into its collection it does so on the basis that it is an unconditional gift to the Museum. Only in exceptional circumstances will an object be accepted as a loan or subject to specific conditions and this will be recorded through the creation of a special contract.

However Museums have always recognised the possibility that an object might later be deaccessioned and there are internationally agreed rules and processes for this to happen. There are many reasons why a Museum would make a decision to deaccession an object from its collection. These include: duplication (the fact that the object is one of several identical objects and a lesser example than the others); a damaged object, an unsafe object (e.g. something contain an unsafe substance such as mercury), an object that can’t be appropriately stored (very large), an object that can’t be appropriately displayed or interpreted (a steam engine that is best understood as a working object for example).

Another reason for deaccession is that after undergoing a rigorous process the object is identified as not of sufficient collection significance to warrant its place in the collection. The collection significance process that is considered best practice in Australasia is documented in a 2009 Australian government document called Collection Significance 2.0. It is rigorous.

Australasian collections are all applying resources to collection rationalization, for the reasons outlined above. Throughout 2018 and 2019 Te Papa Tongarewa’s National Services Te Paerangi unit is running a series of workshops upon: ‘Managing your collection through the process of rationalizing, deaccessioning and disposal’.

As part of our BEHIND THE SCENES work in preparation for the proposed Cultural Facility Development Project in 2016 we prepared, with expert help, collection significance statements for the North Otago Museum and Forrester Gallery. Find out more about our collection work and related documents by visiting the Waitaki District Council website and searching under Our District /Current Projects.

DEACCESSION PROCESS

The North Otago Museum & Archive and Forrester Gallery are jointly a member of Museums Aotearoa which is affiliated with ICOM (International Council of Museums) and as such abide by principles set internationally for the acquisition, care and deaccession of collections. Museums Aotearoa has published a Code of Ethics for Museum practice and this includes a statement guiding the ethical disposal of collections.

In broad outline, once an item has been identified as a candidate for deaccession this is the process that is followed:

1. Can the original donor of the object be identified?
2. If no, see steps 7-10 below. How can we not know the donor? Because prior to the employment of professionally trained staff at the Museum, processes were not always robust or in accord with best practice and the person who gifted the item to the Museum (the donor) has not always been recorded.
3. If yes, we contact the donor or if the donor is deceased, we contact the descendant of the donor. Sometimes we have the contact information of a donor in our records from the original object receipt, otherwise we can find them through the obvious research processes – telephone directory, online search, rates records. For descendant searches we regularly order probate files.
4. Upon contact with the donor or donor descendant, we explain to them why we wish to deaccession the object and we offer it back to them.
5. If the donor wishes to have the object back we arrange that with them
6. If the donor does not want to have the object back, see steps 7 -10 below.
7. We offer the object to another cultural institution. We do this by directly contacting the institution that appears to be a better fit, or best fit for the object or by advertising through the Museums Aotearoa network.
8. If no other collecting institution wishes to acquire the work, we organize a public and independent auction of the object. Any proceeds of auction are quarantined within the Museum budget in the same way that bequests are dealt with. This ensures the funds are only utilized for the benefit of the collection and not used for other projects. It also means that the collection cannot be disposed of in order to raise funds.
9. If we are unable to auction the object we dispose of the object according to a range of internationally accepted methods of disposal which can include a process of disposal by destruction.

All of these processes are carefully documented and recorded as part of our collection systems. We are happy to talk with you about our processes. Email us at museum@waitaki.govt.nz

Chloe Searle