Purely by coincidence, today's Times reports a new publication,
"Too much stuff? Disposal from museums", published a couple of
weeks ago by the National Museum Directors' Conference. This report
summarises the different issues involved in a most readable manner:
The consideration for an orchestrion is probably "denial of
opportunity": while it doesn't work nobody can hear it. That can
be rectified by fixing it or passing it over (gift, loan, swap or
sale) to those capable of fixing it and then displaying it. Selling
to a private individual is not likely to improve opportunities for
the general public, for whom the museum holds the object in trust.
The record of British museums selling off unwanted stuff for cash
is fairly dismal -- they get rid of unfashionable or awkward items,
usually for far too low a price, and regret it soon afterwards.
Curators are rarely experienced dealers!
I like the report's suggestion that if cash is the aim (and it allows
that it might be, which presumably raises howls of protest in some
quarters), then sell off fashionable and well-known items, because
you'll get a high price for them, and those who pay high prices tend
to look after their goods.
The report notes that British public museums rarely (ever?) treat
their collection as a tradable entity to buy and sell to create the
best display, although this is commonplace in American art museums.
[ Sometimes I feel that many big private collectors in both Europe
[ and USA (those who welcome visitors and tours) also treat their
[ instruments as a tradable entity, although they don't speak in
[ such terms...
[ Found at http://www.nationalmuseums.org.uk/de-accessioning.html :
[ "Too Much Stuff?, published by the National Museum Directors'
[ Conference on 27 October 2003, is intended as a contribution to
[ the important, but often muted, debate on disposals from museum
[ "The paper, produced by an NMDC working group and approved by
[ NMDC directors as a whole, asks difficult questions. How do museums
[ justify retaining collections which are not well used or even well
[ cared for? Is it really always wrong, as the current Museum
[ Association Code of Ethics suggests, 'to undertake disposal
[ principally for financial reasons'? Is it always the case that the
[ public interest is best served by retaining every object that has
[ ever entered a museum within the public domain? Might not some
[ objects provide more enjoyment to more people out of a store and
[ in a collector's hands?
[ "Members of NMDC recognise that the questions of acquisition and
[ disposal of their collections go to the heart of what museums seek
[ to, and are able to, provide. They also understand the importance
[ of entering the debate on these issues while acknowledging both its
[ complexities and current legal restraints. This document, produced
[ by an NMDC sub-committee chaired by Mark Jones, Director of the
[ Victoria & Albert Museum, is intended as a contribution to this
[ The complete paper is available as a PDF document (417 kb) at
[ -- Robbie