Creating a Collection: A Tour Through the Smith College Museum of Art

Why Museums Remove Objects from their Collections

As we have learned from WHY and HOW museums collect, collections are pretty fluid things. They change. And they do not always grow. Sometimes museums remove objects from their collections—this is called deaccessioning. Just as museums add to collections for a variety of reasons, museums remove objects from collections for a range of reasons. If an artwork is considered to be in bad shape, a forgery, or a duplicate of something else in the collection, it may be sold or given to an institution that can learn from such a work. More difficult to navigate is if a museum changes its mission or goals and must decide if certain artworks in its collection still serve the same purpose they were acquired to.

Just as if someone were cleaning out her crowded closet, it's best to be methodical and reasoned when removing things from one's personal property, after which they will be irretrievable. In order to avoid regret, one needs to be aware of changing circumstances surround issues of taste and space. The importance of a central mission behind a museum's collecting practices is intended to safeguard against changing trends. Additionally, limitations of space can change over time, so this also should not be a primary motivation for what a museum chooses to keep or dispose of.  

As Marie C. Malaro says in "Deaccessioning--The American Perspective," "Deaccessioning should never be addressed in isolation. It is dependent on a clear articulation of a museum's collecting goals and prudent acquisition procedures. In other words, deaccessioning is not a method for curing sloppiness in accessioning." (46)

Dewing's Lady with Lute was deaccessioned from the SCMA in the 1940s, along with nearly 100 other works of art. This painting was sold by Gimbel's Department store in 1946, on behalf of the SCMA. In May 1947, Dr. Walter Timme bought the painting, which he later donated to the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. 

To learn more about why museums remove objects from the collection, click on the links below. 

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