Collection management and public consent
It is taken as axiomatic among museum professionals that curators must actively shape collections through the processes of acquisition, de-accession, disposal, and transfer. However, these processes are not well understood by the public as a whole, by politicians, or by policy-makers. This leaves museum professions at risk of making decisions about public collections for which they do not have public approval or consent.
In 2016 the National Science and Media Museum took the decision to transfer parts of its photographic collections to the Victoria and Albert Museum. While the decision was justified by the museum in terms of professional practice, the subsequent public controversy and political response suggests that these arguments did not convince a sceptical public that it was a necessary move. This represents an unusually rich case study with which to explore difficult issues facing museums, touching on museum funding, national and local identities, the complex nature of museum collections, and the mobilisation of concepts of ‘art’ and ‘science’.
Using an analysis of the public and political responses to the decision as a starting point and drawing on other recent examples of controversial de-accessioning, this paper explores the gap between the public and professionals, and the intersection with governmental policy. It argues that museum professionals can build public consent for their actions and maintain public trust in their institutions if they communicate better, and that key to doing so is to understand how they are actually understood by the public and by politicians, and the ways this differs from the institutional and museum-professional viewpoints.
Images: Michael Terwey
(above) Museums face a sustainability crisis with ever expanding reserve collections, like these at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. Yet the debates on de-accessioning and disposal tend to be conducted within the profession. We need an open discussion with our publics about a sustainable future for museum collections.
(below) In 2016 the National Science and Media Museum transferred a large collection of photographs to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The public debate on the move gives us an insight into the way that the public understand museum collections and the role of collecting institutions.
In his career Michael Terwey has worked at Hull Museums, Tyne and Wear Museums, Historic Scotland and at the National Maritime Museum. For the last 7 years he has been at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford where he is responsible for collections, exhibitions and research programmes.
michael.terwey [at] scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk