Museums have a responsibility over their collections.
Collections should be developed and maintained with care and duty, each generation preserving collections for future generations. Collect with an awareness of capacity and a commitment to care. Curatorially motivated disposal is an integral part of responsible collections management and will ensure that museums are fit for future generations.
However, disposal of museum items is not straightforward or without risk. Items are bequeathed, donated or purchases for the good of the public - it is important that disposal remembers the public duties of a museum. You need to think about how to dispose, and why.
That's where this guide comes in.
The purpose of the tool kit
This guide to disposal provides general information and guidance on curatorially motivated disposal of items from museum collections. However, it is just a small part of a much bigger tool kit.
Anyone considering disposal within museums should read the whole guide. Download it here and learn about all the different facets of disposal.
The advice provided in the tool kit is underpinned by the Museum Association's Code of Ethics. It should be used in conjunction with a museum's existing policies. Understanding the nuances of disposal is essential to ethical and forward-thinking collections management, so read the full guide.
Considerations before disposal
Before undertaking the disposal of any item you need to think carefully about the intended outcomes - if you can't achieve them, rethink your plans. Your outcomes should always demonstrate how you public benefit will increase as a result.
Your primary outcomes for getting rid of an item from a museum should be one of the following:
Improved care for the item
Improved access to and enjoyment of the item
Improved context for the item
Continued retention of the item within the public domain
Removal of any hazard posed by an item
Other outcomes are possible, such as freeing up resources for better care or to create more space, but decisions should lead towards one of these outcomes.
Selecting items for disposal
Before selecting an item to remove from your museum's collection, ask yourself questions such as why the item was acquired in the first place and whether your desire to get rid of it comes from good motivations.
You might want to dispose of items which are:
Items that museums cannot provide adequate care or curation
A threat to health
Who is involved?
The decision to dispose of an item is not made in isolation and before you make the call you should seek the views of:
The museum workforce
External funders, who may have been involved in item acquisition in the first place
Donors, who are integral to the survival of the museum
Other stakeholders such as visitors, researchers and artists
Once a museum has selected an item for disposal, the current status of the item and the method of its entry into the collection should be investigated. This could affect any proposed course of action and may influence the method of disposal.
Work out if the item was loaned, donated, purchased or bequeathed, then check that you are legally able to dispose of it.
Choose one of the following methods for disposing items, remembering at all times that items should be kept within the public domain as much as is possible. Ensure that the public continue to trust museums.
The methods you can use to dispose of an item are:
Free gift or transfer to another Accredited museum. This is the preferred method as it ensures future care for items and maintains a spirit of longstanding cooperation between museums.
Exchange of items between museums.
Free gift or transfer to another organisation within the public domain. We recommend only doing this once it has been established that an Accredited museum will not take your item.
Return to donor. This is useful if it appears impossible to keep the item in the public domain. Only return to a donor once public options, such as other museums, have been exhausted.
Sale of an item to an Accredited museum. There is a strong preference and tradition of free gifts. However, some museums may wish to sell items that they purchased with their own funds - but the money should go to the benefit of the museum.
Transfer outside of the public domain. In the rare case that you cannot pass your item onto museums, some enthusiasts and special interest groups may take on ownership of an item.
Sale outside of the public domain. This is not recommended as an initial course of action and should only happen after it has been listed online as available to other museums.
Recycling an item. If a new location cannot be found, consider giving an item to charity or selling it as scrap.
Destruction of an item. This should only happen when the item poses a health risk.
It is important that all aspects of the disposal process are documented - this should be done to Spectrum standards.
Any records should include:
Reasons for disposal
Opinions and advice considered
The method of disposal
Conclusion of process
Any conditions attached
Information relating to the item and photographs
Note of any new location
As with all areas of museum practice it is important that museums ensure transparency and openness with the public, their colleagues and stakeholders.
it is important to keep the public informed of plans relating to the disposal of items through press and media. Good proactive communication can do much to increase the public’s understanding and awareness of this area of museum practice.
Museums should adopt an open and honest approach that explains the context and potential benefit of the planned course of action. It is important to set out publicly the museum’s overall policy on disposal against which individual cases can be explained.
Read the full guide for advice on the ethics of disposal, official codes of practice and in-depth guidance on all of these topics.
The following links will also be helpful for disposal:
This video was produced for the UCM/SHARE Museums East Collections Care Conference ‘R is for Review and Rationalisation’ in January 2022. Ruth Burwood explains the disposal process to ensure Accreditation compliance is maintained. Where ACE is referenced in the video, museums in Scotland should substitute MGS.