September brought important developments for collections management

Posted on: October 4, 2019 by

September was, as usual, an eventful month for the art world and the cultural heritage sector. After the lull of the summer months, there were a number of interesting events and developments that took place both in the UK and abroad. Today, we will be looking at two developments that were important from a collections management perspective.

The Wallace Collection, London. Image via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 2.0, Anthony O’Neil.

For starters, the long-standing ban on loans that shackled the Wallace Collection since its inception has finally been reviewed and given a new interpretation that is much more in sync with our day and age: loans will finally become a part of the Wallace’s day to day. Given the many masterpieces in their collection as well as the fact that the museums and exhibitions world is more interconnected than ever, this change will mark the beginning of a new era for the museum and is sure to bring many benefits not only to the Wallace itself but also to the museum community and the wider public. Hopefully, this change will also serve as a nudge to other collections that have bans on loans, by sending the message that perhaps they should review their policies as well, as is the case of the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris or of many works in the Frick Collection in New York.

The other development worth noting from September was a major deaccessioning by the Metropolitan Museum of Art of over 300 Chinese artworks that had been bequeathed to its collection. The sale of these artworks was arranged through Sotheby’s and what is very interesting about this particular deaccessioning is that it had been specifically allowed for in the terms of the bequest as the donors had intended for the museum to have the freedom and discretion to sell those items in order to raise funds for the acquisition of other objects. Whilst such an allowance is certainly an unusual term in a museum bequest, it begs consideration in the never-ending debate of what are acceptable motivations to deaccession objects from a collection. More importantly, the mere possibility of this sale and the resulting deaccessioning by the MET also highlight the importance of having clear written terms when accepting gifts and bequests. This is crucial not only to ensure that donors’ expectations are respected but also to clarify the museum’s powers with regard to those objects in the future.

From a collections management perspective, these events remind us of some age-old principles when it comes to collections management, as discussed above regarding having clear terms for gifts and bequests, but they also highlight the changing future of collections management and the challenges that museums must face as times change: it had become impracticable for the Wallace to exist without the possibility of loans (in or out), just as it had become impracticable for the MET to keep those objects in its collection. The question that remains, of course, is how to ensure that the right decisions are made? In the world of collections management, there is never a clear-cut answer.

These and many other topics will be the subject of IAL’s upcoming Diploma in Law and Collections Management (DipLCM), which will take place in London next week over five intensive full days at the offices of Boodle Hatfield, who will be graciously hosting us. Click here if you would like to learn more about IAL’s DipLCM.