Tuesday, March 4, 2008


Hmmm...it's everywhere these days...
sustainability...what does that really mean for museums? A number of museums are exploring ways to make their buildings sustainable--green building is becoming a more important part of many museum's thinking (for more on green building, see Sarah Brophy's website). Equally important, though, and also addressed by Sarah on her site, are the issues of organizational sustainability. I recently co-presented an introductory workshop for small museums about grantwriting. I was stunned, in a way, to discover how many museum people--staff members, volunteers, board members, couldn't articulate a real purpose for their museum--couldn't go, to paraphase Laura Roberts, from being only in the storage and warehouse business.

I thought about this today as I had a conversation about storage units and filled basements--a colleague couldn't quite bring herself to sort out family belongings after her parents had passed away. Some days, on my trips to small museums, that's what it feels like. All too often small museum staff and volunteers feel that because someone gave it to them, someone local, someone they knew, it must have meaning and importance, even though no documentation came with it. And there you are, with yet another wedding dress, or wood plane, or stiff-necked man in a daguerrotype--that must be cataloged and cared for. A 1989 article by Gail Dexter Lord (thanks, Joann, for sending this along) found that collections care, directly and indirectly, made up an overage of 66% of museum budgets.

Interestingly, the UK Museums Association has taken a bold step. According to their website
they are "urging museums to make their collections more dynamic and to include disposal as a routine part of collections development. To this end, a Disposal Toolkit is now available to download… Mark Taylor, the MA's director, said: "Museums typically collect a thousand times as many things as they get rid of. Wonderful collections can become a burden unless they are cleared of unused objects." The Museum Association provides a free downloadable Disposal Toolkit to help museums think about the process.

So will deaccessioning our collections help us become more sustainable? Maybe, maybe not. Not if the museum deaccessions, but still maintains the same mindset. Maybe yes, if museums use the deaccession funds to properly care for their collections, and find additional time and funds to do more work in engaging communities. The only way we'll be sustainable is if people see a need and a purpose, if we really do connect with our communities in ways that matter to them.

Above: Mrs. Norris (no relation), Pie Town, New Mexico, from my favorite source, the FSA/OWI collection at the Library of Congress

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