Farrer and Co seminar on art and heritage

Thank you Stephen for your introduction and for inviting me to speak today at this important seminar. I am happy to take questions from the …

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Ed Vaizey

Thank you Stephen for your introduction and for inviting me to speak today at this important seminar. I am happy to take questions from the floor in a few minutes.

Before that however, I would like to set out some of my thoughts on the issue of deaccessioning and disposal from our museums - why I would advise museums to think carefully about the reasons behind and the implications of any disposal, but also why I think now is a good time to think about making our collections work harder, to share them more widely and to use them creatively to generate income.

De-accessioning Code of Ethics and responsibilities of museums and Trustees under their governing statutes

This is a controversial subject that has been hotly debated for a number of years and is now increasingly under the spotlight, particularly given recent incidents where the proposed sale of items from within local authority museum collections has come under fierce scrutiny and strong debate.  The current case in Bolton, for instance, presents some difficult questions about how collections should be managed. 

Of course, the national museums’ governing statutes rightly place the responsibilities for their collections with their trustees, who are legally responsible for the collections in their care. The national museums are only able to dispose of items under particular - and very limited - circumstances, such as if the museum holds a duplicate object or if the object has been damaged.  And generally they must not dispose of any item given as a gift or bequest. 

I know that there is the valid point that it is unsustainable for museums to continually collect objects without any consideration of disposal or the transfer of some items. Museums need to think very carefully about their collections management policies.  And it can be a demanding juggling act in preserving the collection, whilst also making it fresh and relevant.

There has certainly been a much more open and constructive debate about de-accessioning in recent years. There have been the reforms to the Museums Association Code of Ethics, recognising that disposal may sometimes be necessary to ensure the sustainability of museum collections. I know these were widely welcomed by museums professionals.

Rather than dismissing any circumstances in which a disposal may be considered, the revised Code provided a pragmatic approach, whereby works might on occasion be removed from a collection, but based on a fully transparent set of guidelines.

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Presumption in favour of retention and against disposal for financial reasons

That Code of Ethics, however, makes it clear that there is a general presumption in favour of the retention of items within the public domain. What it is categorical in saying is that disposal principally for financial reasons should not be undertaken, or only in exceptional circumstances and where it will significantly improve the long-term public benefit of the remaining collection.  In other words it has to be in the public interest, not for the commercial advantage of any one party.

There is ultimately a concern that the sale of collections might be seen as a stratagem for falling revenues and a justifiable means of dealing with the challenges of the current economic climate. As has been said elsewhere, collections should not be seen as a kind of financial larder to be raided whenever times are hard.

Institutions have to consider the full ramifications of disposals. Any disposal construed as financially motivated undoubtedly damages public confidence in institutions which have been entrusted by us with maintaining collections for the benefit of the public. Many of our collections are the result of the generosity of benefactors whose gift was made with the specific understanding that it would be held in perpetuity for the good of the nation.

If institutions are seen to not be entirely ethical in the disposal of any items this could present significant deterrents with regard to future legacies and bequests which could have a negative impact on the growth and vitality of our public collections. This would be extremely unwelcome at a time when we are all keen to encourage philanthropy.

And let us not forget that a number of our wonderful public collections would not exist had it not been for generous benefactors. I am thinking for example of the generous loan of Domenichino’s St John the Evangelist to the National Gallery which was saved from export by a recent private purchaser , or Jonathan Ruffer’s magnificent offer to create a trust to retain the Church of England’s twelve paintings by Zurbaran in Auckland Castle.  

Think of the Arts Council Collection, a public collection of post-war and contemporary British art, a highly respected collection to which artists, dealers and collectors regularly offer to donate works, a sign of its reputation and recognition of the important role it plays in developing audiences across the country.

Museums need to consider that contravention of the Code of Ethics can lead to the withdrawal of a museum’s formal Accreditation by the MLA, and could also lead to the removal of Museum Association membership.

The loss of Accreditation can have an adverse effect on the reputation and credibility with funding agencies and their eligibility for support from other public services, the national lottery or private sector funding.  It can also damage their relationship with their peers in other institutions -the sort of implications that cannot be taken lightly in thinking about the long-term sustainability of a collection.

Whilst I believe that decisions about local authority managed collections must be taken at the local level, I would always encourage all Local Authorities to carefully weigh all the relevant factors before selling any works of art which, once gone, can never be replaced.  So the message must be to avoid applying short-term solutions that can have a long-term damaging legacy.

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Reasons to carefully consider before de-accessioning

I would suggest caution needs to be applied whenever de-accessioning is under consideration. This is because of:

a) Fashionability.  An item that may be considered unfashionable and of little relevance today and disposed of on that basis, can easily come back into favour. Can we really be utterly confident in putting a price today on something which might become highly valued  by  future generations, or in predicting future trends? Particularly if that choice is being dictated by financial considerations. One man’s junk is another’s treasure trove.

b) As I have said earlier, what it might mean for gifts and bequests.  Donors are likely to be very reluctant to give to museums and galleries who have any sort of history in selling off items in the collection. We know that those museums who have considered doing so have attracted a considerable amount of negative publicity.  It is difficult to think a donor would select such an institution to benefit from any gift.

c) Institutions need to avoid cherrypicking - selling the best parts of its collection to raise the most money. A disaster both for the institution itself and for the public today, who may see items within a collection they have enjoyed suddenly disappearing, and for those in the future who have been deprived of access to the best works of art.

Collections being made more widely available

Despite this important note of caution, I welcome the debate on disposal and deaccession. Whilst wanting to discourage the sale of items, I would like museums to think about making collections work harder.  I suggest they need to be far more innovative in ensuring that publicly owned collections are shared more widely, for example through both long and short term loans. I know that institutions have been looking at this.

But now I want museums to think about their loans policy a bit more radically. I would like to see more loans to other museums, or institutions being much more inventive in the way they loan material, for example extending offers to loan to schools, universities or even local businesses, where they can be sure of being seen by plenty of people.

I know that the Royal Armouries has some really innovative plans to make its collection work hard, not only to generate income for the museum but to raise its profile internationally. The Armouries already operates a semi-permanent gallery in the US and is looking to expand these galleries across North America which will generate income for the museum through educational programmes, retail opportunities and fundraising events. It is also planning a major travelling exhibition to museums across the States and Canada. Whilst taking care to have a careful loan policy and ensure that collections of significance are available to people in the UK, the collection will work hard to bring back income for museum and the British public.

I had the opportunity recently to officially open the stunning exhibition Spencer’s War: The Art of Shipbuilding on the Clyde at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in his native Cookham (a gallery entirely run by dedicated volunteers, incidentally). The exhibition included five works on loan to the Gallery from the Imperial War Museum- a greatly valued addition.

I said then and say now that I would certainly encourage the national museums and galleries to loan more of their works to regional exhibitions such as this. The fact that this loan was to a Gallery devoted to Spencer’s works in the place that he so loved makes it that much more significant and welcome. A really inspirational use of a national institution’s collection.

I know that there has been a lot of passionate discussion lately about the Lowry works owned by the Tate and not on display. Passionate because Lowry is greatly admired by many. Surely the only rent collector ever to be held in such affection. Whilst I certainly can’t agree that these works should be up for sale as I think has been one of the suggestions, I would say that making them accessible perhaps through a regional loan would be a positive move and one that would certainly be a popular one.

Can I also add that I am a big fan of exploiting the wonderful tools offered by modern technology -digitising collections to increase access and engage audiences, as well as the contribution this can make to scholarship and research. Museums and galleries have to move with the times, be bold and embrace new opportunities wherever they can.   

And collections must be living and breathing collections with displays that are rotated and changed regularly, perhaps with curators even involving members of the public on what exhibits might be seen.

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Generating income

And there is no reason why institutions cannot be inventive in enabling their collection to be seen by more people in the community, whilst also generating income. Museums charging corporate institutions for the loan of works of art for example?

Items in storage

I know that one of the arguments for de-accessiong are those reports, including very recently, that too many treasures are in storage and not made available for more to see. 

I can understand there is concern that institutions receiving public financing must do everything in their power to display as much in their collection as possible. The Museums Association has said that it wants to challenge venues to offer more to the public, and I support that view. 

But we must also understand that there are those objects which are so fragile that they can only be on public display, if at all, very rarely. There are also those objects that frankly were never intended for public display, such as specific archaeological fragments for example.  Museums have after all a duty to preserve precious items for future generations, as well as making as much of the collection as possible available for all to see.  And we should also not forget that such items are usually available to view by appointment under the right conditions.

Summing up

I don’t for a minute believe that all of you will be content with this [my] approach. My first consideration as the Culture Minister has to be to weigh up what is in the public interest.  I do not believe that the issue of de-accessioning has stagnated, but that much work has been done to take this issue forward, and it is right that it continues to be discussed. But ultimately we need to be very clear that the call for de-accessioning should be one guided by public and not private interest.

Published 10 May 2011