Philadelphia museum is cleaning house

    Philadelphia’s Atwater Kent Museum is in the midst of a five million dollar renovation, and at the same time they are re-evaluating their collection. The city history museum will very likely sell a number of its pieces. Museums are taking a look at the ethics of culling their collections.

    Philadelphia’s Atwater Kent Museum is in the midst of a five million dollar renovation, and at the same time they are re-evaluating their collection. The city history museum will very likely sell a number of its pieces. Museums are taking a look at the ethics of culling their collections.

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    [audio: 090520pcmuseums.mp3]

    The Atwater Kent Museum is not able to keep all its stuff in the building. A 103,000 piece collection needs a lot of space, but director Viki Sands says the building itself is a danger to the fragile artifacts.

    Sands: Mostly you need to have a stable environment. We don’t have that. It’s beastly hot in the summer, and freezing…What we can’t control is the humidity.

    During renovations the museum is taking a hard look at their collection. A few dozen carved trade figures have already been sold – like wooden indians you might see outside tobacco stores. Sands says they got 1.5 million dollars for them.

    It’s called De-Accessioning, when pieces of a collection are sold. It’s done for a lot of reasons – if there are duplicate items, or if pieces don’t fit the mission of the museum. Professional ethics allow Sands to use money from those sales for certain capital improvements – like buying a humidity control system for the building. But ethics do not allow her to run the system with those funds.

    Sands: That may sound like splitting hairs, but it draws the line between this makes the building so you are holding collections in an environment that can serve them, but you are not annually using the fund to pay for use.

    It’s one of the nuances of museum work. Curators are obligated to maintain the health of their collections. If they can’t properly take care of fragile objects – like old pieces of clothing or canvases – sometimes they have to get rid of them.

    Behind two locked doors on the second floor of the Academy of Natural Science is a roomful of rocks.

    Daeschler: It’s alarmed.

    Dr. Ted Daeschler oversees the Vaux collection of historic minerals. They are deep purple crystals and bright yellow crystals as big as your head, speckled with clear quartz like chicken pox. They were collected by a 19th century naturalist named William Vaux.

    Daeschler: As you can see these are absolutely beautiful.

    The Academy almost lost this collection two years ago when a buyer believed the Academy wasn’t able to take care of it. Selling it would have brought in 2 million dollars, but Academy president Bill Brown fought the sale in court saying they can take care of it…and besides William Vaux’s stipulated that the rocks stay with the Academy. The Academy may have lost a 2 million dollar payday but in the end Brown says it helped his bottom line.

    Brown: There are really two rationales for keeping collections: one is, you really ought to – I mean, what are you here for? If you don’t do it, the collections will disappear. The other argument is, that it’s actually bad for business.

    And sometimes it’s illegal. Because museums enjoy tax breaks and subsidies, they are legally bound to be good stewards of objects in the public trust. Brian Peterson at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown – says that even perceived violations of that trust can be damaging.

    Peterson: If people begin to think the reason we make decisions are more to do with personal self-interest or naked institutional self-interest, everything we do becomes challenged.

    There are a handful of recent high-profile de-accessioning incidents including putting the Rose Museum collection in Massachusetts on the market, the sale of an Asher Durand painting by the New York Public Library, and in Philadelphia the dust-up over the painting The Gross Clinic two years ago.

    In order to keep that iconic Thomas Eakins painting in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts sold another Eakins masterpiece, The Cello Player, to a private collector who remains unnamed to this day. Temple University professor Ken Finkel is concerned that the painting is now effectively inaccessible by the public.

    Finkel: Keeping Gross Clinic was a huge coup for city and the region. But the loss of The Cello Player taints it… if you’re going to de-accession something make sure it’s not part of your core mission.

    There is legislation pending in New York State that would strengthen laws governing how museum collections are handled and many curators are wary. Herbert Riband is chair of the Academy of Fine Art board and says de-accessioning decisions are too subtle to be legislated.

    Riband: It gums everything up. Do we want the government to be involved in what are artistic and aesthetic judgements? Legislation is a blunt instrument, as opposed to a surgical instrument that can be applied by professional associations.

    The American Association of Museums has just revised its own self-policing code of ethics, which makes curators beholden to many masters, including the mission of the institution, promises made to donors, and most of all the court of public opinion; which is, of course, not legally binding.

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