The Municipality of Rotterdam owns a large number of art objects. The objects are housed in various museums. Museums are cutting back and assessing surplus pieces. As a result, the Municipality is confronted with the concept of "de-collecting".
The Municipality has developed a vision on how Rotterdam museums can de-collect objects belonging to the Municipality, also called divestment of art. This vision is broadly in line with the Dutch Museum Association's guideline for the disposal of museum objects. These objects are housed at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Maritiem Museum Rotterdam, Wereldmuseum and Nederlands Fotomuseum, among others.
The basic principle is that deaccessioning must be carried out carefully, lawfully and transparently. If a museum in Rotterdam wishes to deaccess an object, it must apply for approval from the Municipal Executive. The application must include details of the object, its origin, the reason for collecting and the proposed method of collecting. In the case of objects without any (cultural) value, a general description will suffice. This is particularly important if the request concerns larger quantities of objects. In the request, the museum must indicate how the request relates to its collection policy plan, which the municipality requires it to draw up once every four years.
The question in the case of deaccessioning is to what extent a successor buyer should pay a purchase price for the object. The Dutch Museum Association has a clear preference for transferring an object to other museum institutions without payment. The Rotterdam City Council nuances that view in the sense that an object that has been paid for out of public funds should be transferred outside of the municipality for a purchase price if that seems reasonable. However, money should not be the reason for the collection. If a purchase price is paid, the proceeds go to a so-called "special-purpose reserve". Rotterdam museums can request a contribution from this for the improvement of the collection and its accessibility. It is likely that a de-collecting museum will include a spending proposal with its request for approval.
After the application has been received, the Board will have an external review committee advise on the application, after which it will decide whether or not to grant approval. If approval is granted, the intended collection may be carried out. In the case of objects acquired by the Municipality by gift or inheritance, the donors or heirs must, if possible, be able to give their views, without prejudice to the effect of any testamentary or gift conditions. In case of sale, they must give their approval.
The use of funds so received may not be used by a museum to cover the day-to-day expenses of a museum. It is not the intention that losses are "made up" in this way. Recently, the Municipality has had several applications reviewed by the Review Committee. The most striking of these is a deaccession request from the Wereldmuseum. The assessment committee issued a negative advice, because in its opinion the requirements that an application must meet were not met. The Wereldmuseum wishes to dispose of 23,000 objects and has submitted a bulk application. The Committee felt that this was inappropriate, given the quality of the objects. Specific descriptions would be required. Moreover, the committee could not reconcile the application with the Wereldmuseum's general policy of "focusing" the collection on objects from Asia and Oceania. It seemed that objects from all continents would be either de-collected or retained. Also, the statement of the external expert did not clarify the objects to be de-collected but rather the collection that the World Museum actually wishes to preserve. Valuation reports of valuable objects were said to be missing. Also, no attention was paid to reinstatement (without payment) at fellow museums. The Committee felt that the application was not careful, correct and transparent. It concerns an advice. The municipality will now decide.
Deaccessioning is not something you do lightly. The procedure at the City of Rotterdam must be taken seriously by a de-collecting museum and demands care.
Collection goods are not commodities. Reinstatement is paramount and payment of a purchase price must be a reasonable demand. A museum that wishes to deaccession an object will in that case want to receive a purchase price and that can lead to a clash of interests with museums that are interested but do not want to pay. Whether the argument of improving the collection (or the museum) in such a case is sufficiently reasonable to insist on a purchase price, the future will tell. For such conflicts there should be a quick and objective means of resolving disputes. The Dutch Museum Association has an ethical code committee that may be able to fulfill that role for both parties. But if the City of Rotterdam, as owner, disapproves of the desire to de-collect, what then? Does the museum then have to go to the ordinary courts or does it have the horse-shoe option of ending its management of the objects? The answer to these questions would require further research, which is beyond the scope of this contribution. It is clear, however, that the Netherlands will have to deal with this issue in the years ahead.
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