Friday, 12 September 2014


Alte Pinakothek − Visitors watch paintings
photo: Mattes
"The Museum age, which reached its Augustan apogee with the post-World War II boom in art education, in special exhibitions, in collecting, in museum-building, is finally over. Museums, once permanent fixtures by which to negotiate our spiritual journeys, have suddenly revealed infirmities in their foundations that have threatened them with collapse.Like many institutions in the late sixties, they were abruptly thrust from their historical context into the vicissitudes of contemporary life, where the problems of the entire society―many of them irrelevant to art museums― were brought to bear on them. ... Museums have been forced to cope with with a variety of political problems for which their staffs are hardly qualified. Museum men also appear uncertain of their responsibilities to their own holdings. By and large administered by antiquated methods, their policies guided by trustees who have not demonstrated their capacity to understand contemporary issues, most museums have had their position defined for them."

The above passage is by Brian O'Doherty (ed) in the introduction to Museums in Crisis, New York, 1972. Apart from the term "Museum men", this could be a contemporary account instead of one more than forty years old.

Not only do the problems of 1972 show little sign of being resolved, but new problems have been imposed on museums already years behind in the cataloging of their collections by people who have little to no knowledge of the difficulties museums face in merely keeping their doors open.

Deaccession policies usually demand that any monies obtained be reserved for the purchase of other exhibits, but most new accessions do not encourage many new visitors; internationally important travelling museum exhibitions are unsuitable for smaller cities as the box-office receipts would not even cover the costs, let alone provide extra money for needed infrastructure improvements such as new galleries, restaurants and gift shop expansions.

With  museum collections of ancient art being threatened with repatriation for objects lacking much in the way of past collecting histories, even the collectors and their heirs who bequeathed most of the collections in the past are wondering whether the museum is the best home for such collections and the auction houses are getting unprecedented high prices for everything with a long and secure provenance. Lesser items are rarely purchased at all by museums, these objects rarely have a collecting history that can be passed on to the new owner because of privacy laws and the fact that many of the objects which are now sold in single lots used to be part of larger lots that were not even illustrated in earlier catalogs.
Ivory-tower academics who have no museum or even business experience are quick to criticize anyone who does not supply a collecting history even though their recommendations knowingly flaunt the law and they are also quick to solicit public support each time there is another deaccession. Archaeologists frequently side with repatriation demands on the behest of those countries who issue them excavation permits so it is no small wonder that these archaeologists are not even interested in whether the museum will survive at all.

Smaller museums are leaning more toward local histories and this gives them the opportunity to gain needed funds by selling off objects that lay outside of their collecting interests. Even though some funding bodies threaten to cut off support for the museum, the amount of money that can be gained from deaccession is often far greater than what would be gained otherwise so these threats are ignored.

After forty years, the problems have escalated but the solutions are just as elusive.


  1. "The suggestion that collecting histories are actually illegal is utter nonsense. Taking that argument further, it would be "illegal" for an potential employer to ask for references from a previous employer - unless it's done anonymously. Mr Hooker all-too willingly gives the names of all sorts of people he's corresponded with and worked with. He will no doubt explain the difference."....Writes Paul Barford, the vehement anti-collector who many people believe resides in an ivory tower but whether he's an academic or not, is well, a moot point. As usual, he 'spins' for effect but is unable to argue against facts he finds unpalatable.

    He's obviously unaware that in democratic countries job references are always a condition of employment, unlike one suspects, those in the former Warsaw Pact where promotion depended on the level of toadying, grovelling, even betrayal, one was prepared to sink to: In short, to use the vernacular of the street; it's not who you knew...but who you blew.

    Doubtless some archaeologists would side with the devil just to get an excavation permit. Certainly some found employment with the Soviets while cocking a deaf ear to the sounds of detention without trial, torture, State-sponsored murder, and food rationing for non-Party members.

    Yet, these same cretins dare to accuse collectors and anyone with a different viewpoint to theirs of being unethical.

    Best regards

    John Howland

    1. I always check my facts first. A local coin dealer told me that he is bound by law not to reveal the identity of a seller to another customer, and that he knows of no place where such privacy laws do not exist. You see the effect in auction catalogs all the time with "property of a gentleman" etc. The police also insist that the proper identification of a seller is recorded by the dealer to prevent the sale of stolen property. This information is for the use of the police and the courts and not for the public.

      These sort of mistakes are endemic among anti-collectors as they never look beyond their own interests. That they are "anti" is because if their advice were taken by everyone, no dealers could even exist and collectors could not form good collections that would have academic interest.

      Further proof of lack of interest in other subjects is that PB constantly calls me a "collector". While I have a collection of early Celtic art gathered over the last thirty years, it consists of just over twenty objects and I have more books on the subject than antiquities. It is a research collection and I am an academically published researcher with one published book, a contribution to another; five papers, two archaeology conference presentations and two magazine articles (not including exclusively on-line publications -- too many to easily count). All but one of these publications were requested by their publishers, I have never had to submit anything "cold". If he can't even get that right it must mean that he is not much of a researcher himself, or is depending on the gullibility of his readers.

  2. "Archaeologists frequently side with repatriation demands on the behest of those countries who issue them excavation permits so it is no small wonder that these archaeologists are not even interested in whether the museum will survive at all..."

    Really? Surely you jest....

    1. Hi Dick, Alison Wylie (Thinking from Things, p.243) says "In effect, archaeologists are foxes who have set themselves up to guard the chicken coop" and she elaborates on this further.

  3. hi john,let me just say as a collector, a good collecting history [provenance] is highly sought after and collectors are willing to pay a premium to buy a piece with a good collecting for these privacy laws,i dont get it,what happens in canada when a car dealer sells a car,isnt the previous owners name on the log book,it is in the uk,i can trace all the previous owners of any car i buy and i can even check a HPI database to see if anyone owes any money on the are right that collectors who bequeath"are wondering whether the museum is the best home for such collections" but not because of repatriation issues but because their gift might be sold on at a later not against a museum having to deaccession a piece but if a donor makes a specific request for the gift to remain on display and not be sold than thats how it should be.recently hear in the uk the northampton museum and croydon museum sold off gifts to their museums, for short term financial gain.maybe loosing museum accreditation in canada might not mean much but hear in the uk it is a big thing.with the lottery grant system we have now in the uk [any unclaimed winnings given to good causes]a museum could loose tens of millions.provenance is important in all collecting areas thesedays and often adds value to a piece whether it is a signed letter by winston churchill or an elvis presley sock,the provenance is just as important as the piece itself.

  4. Cars are a different category of merchandise, coins and antiques fall under second hand goods. There are very good reasons for having such categories and they are not interchangeable.

    I think people who flaunt privacy laws are the same sort of people who don't understand privacy. As they lack empathy, they do not care about and perhaps cannot even envisage situations where people do not wish to have things associated with themselves, or might feel embarrassment about having to sell something, or might worry that the sort of objects might attract break-ins. Other problems might be even more personal and specific to certain incidents. Cars are a less personal class of object and present different problems like human safety and potential property damage.

    Whenever deaccession is considered, all factors are taken into consideration. It is more likely an indication that current regulations are no longer aligned with financial realities.