Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Ebb and Flow of Collecting at the Whitworth

 Gillian Smithson, Gallery and Museum Registrar at the University of Manchester, gave the first talk of the afternoon.

A programme of disposals was initiated in 2008 at the Whitworth, motivated by the forthcoming redevelopment. It’s a good opportunity to take stock of the process, following the completion of the redevelopment.

In the Whitworth’s 124 year history, over 58,700 objects have been accessioned into the collection. In the same period, just over 400 objects have been deaccessioned. Gillian questioned whether this ratio was sustainable going forward. She went on to explain that although it is difficult to say no to gifts, and there is also a sense of betrayal it is as the responsibility of the museum to care for objects. Many institutions have storerooms of objects that no one really knows what to do with, and having too much can be detrimental to the collection.

In terms of the history of the museum, the founders’ legacy allowed for lots of purchasing of objects in the early years, as well as accepting almost anything people offered. After World War I, finances were in dire straits, but people continued to gift works to the museum due to its reputation. The gallery became part of the University in 1958 and throughout the 60’s they really began investing. This coincided with the architectural changes to the museum; gallery spaces were now open plan. The acquisition strategy focussed on prints as it was easier to represent a range of European artists, rather than spending money on expensive oil paintings for example.

A new director in 2007 saw changes in terms of acquisitions; rationalising the collection, shared acquisitions and benefiting from the V&A’s purchase grant fund. The following year, areas of the collection were identified to focus on editing; furniture, ceramics, jewellery and multiple/duplicated items.

Advice was sought from the Museum Association in 2015 for guidance on curatorial-focussed disposals. When potential disposals were identified, a disposals form was completed and presented to an internal group which allowed for discussion by multiple people throughout the whole process. Disposals were advertised on the MA website, however Gillian felt the most successful responses were received when specialist groups were approached directly.

Gillian gave some examples of disposals that were completed after an open and transparent process, following the MA’s guidelines:
·         A group of ceramics were transferred to Manchester Metropolitan Museum to complement the existing collection.
·         90 pieces of Scandinavian jewellery that had been hidden since the 19th century were identified. These have now been transferred to the British Museum and some are on display.
·         The Whitworth also had some objects that were donated by Elizabeth Gaskell’s daughters. These are now in the process of being transferred to the Gaskell Museum.

However transfer of items to other institutions are not always possible. A collection of ties that were previously part of the Whitworth’s collection, for example, were sent to a charity shop as the museum’s remit did not include focusing on the collection of three-dimensional fabrics.

Issues that have been raised have included items that had no, or very little, information on their catalogue cards. Staff have had to question how to work with such objects. There were also items in the collection where the museum could not prove that certain things belonged to them.

Legally, museums face the challenge of holding some items that they can't dispose of – for example a gift may have had certain conditions to it. A way to deal with these types of objects are to find other institutions whose collections would benefit from these objects and set up long loans.

Gillian concluded with a reflection on the present day. The museum is thinking differently about how they fill gallery spaces. The collection is becoming even more international and continues to grow, however it does this with a balanced view on acquisitions. Scrutinising the collection will continue as a subtle, diligent and logical process.

By Laura Murphy, Assistant Collection Registrar, Tate

Monday, 6 June 2016

#UKRGWhitworth: Panel discussion

The stimulating day in Manchester concluded with a panel discussion This provided attendees with the opportunity to grill the day’s speakers, plus Alistair Brown, Museums Association Policy Advisor, who had recently finished working on the MA’s new Code of Ethics and Janet Ulph, expert on Law and Collections Management and author of guidelines on Curatorially Motivated Disposal.

The discussion kicked off with a question on what the MA’s new Code of Ethics has to say about acquisitions and disposals. Alistair Brown gave us the welcome advice that there has been no radical change on these issues and that the MA’s position is that curatorially motivated disposal can and should be conducted and that, in certain circumstances, financially motivated disposal can even be conducted ethically. Janet Ulph added that, in addition to her rigorous guidelines on Curatorially Motivated Disposal, she will be producing a short guidance document on the additional obligations that the Government’s planned ratification of the Hague Convention will impose on museums and is also working on guidance for museums who face closure or the loss of a storage facility.

The discussion then turned to the question of what you should do if you receive an object in the post and you are in some way suspicious of its provenance. Janet Ulph emphasised that the act of someone posting it to you could be construe as an intent to make a gift; the receiving museum then has a choice whether or not to accept it. If it fits their collecting policy, they could then accession it; however, if they are suspicious, they should consult other museums. Either way, this is a good strategy: other institutions may have an expert who can give reassurance about the object’s provenance, and if they can’t, the recipient could at least make a fuller report to the National Crime Agency.

Following on from an issue that Gillian Smithson had raised earlier, the panel were then asked what a museum should do if they had transferred an object in the 1950s or 60s without proper paperwork or due diligence and the recipient then wanted to sell it. Alistair Brown stated that this is unlikely to cause a problem for the originator museum unless the scrutiny the sale draws will cause them reputational damage. Janet Ulph stated that, under the Sale of Goods Act, the recipient can sell any item he owns legitimately, so they would act legally. It was the UNESCO convention of 1970 that necessitated provenance checks – if the transfer happened before this was ratified, the originator museum had not done anything illegal. 

A member from the National Galleries of Scotland then asked the panel how their various institutions deal with the disposal of non-inventoried objects such as packing crates. The team from the Museum of London mentioned that they, too, have some material like this to dispose of. They follow a less onerous procedure than they would for collection items, but still ensure that the disposal of these objects is documented. They conduct due diligence checks to ensure that set dressing is not in fact accessioned and, when this cannot be established, they take a risk-managed judgement.
The discussion concluded with a question about how we change the perception of disposals as being a negative thing to do. Janet Ulph explained that, to change this perception, museums must be very press-savvy and aware of how disposals can be reported (or mis-reported). Kevin Gosling suggested that the museum profession needs to change its ideas about collections stewardship and asked whether we could learn from nature conservation, where stewardship is a process of active management – you have to prune dead wood to allow saplings to grow. He also noted that disposal doesn’t have to mean destruction or sale and can mean that objects are used to greater public benefit. The team from the Museum of London shared a story about how one recipient was moved to tears at the generosity of their gift of what, from the point of view of their collection, was duplicate material and how a cooker once consigned to storage because it contained asbestos was rendered safe and transferred to the RAF Museum for use in public display.

This was a stimulating end to an enlightening day that left all attendees with a lot to think about the ethical and practical aspects of acquisitions and disposals.

By Susannah Darby, Collections Information Officer, Science Museum

Approaching a large-scale rationalisation project at the Museum of London, Lizzie Cooper & Naomi Russell

As a Collections Information Officer at the Science Museum I am responsible for handling the disposal of objects from our collections. From supporting our Curatorial Team in conducting due diligence through to advertising, transferral or disposal I get to be involved in the entire process and so I am highly aware of the ‘devilish nature of disposals’. With large projects looming, I gained valuable insight from colleagues at the Museum of London (MoL) on the challenges of a large-scale rationalisation project but would also like to join them in recognising the satisfaction that can come from transferring objects to new and excited owners.

So, how do Museums go about approaching such a large-scale rationalisation project? What are the key tasks to be completed before presented for disposal? How do we ensure consistency in approach? Well thanks to Lizzie and Naomi from the Museum of London we all have a better idea…..

As a result of a major review of its Social and Working History collections, the Museum of London has identified approximately 6,000 objects for disposal and is now facing the task of researching and presenting disposal cases for approval as well as the physical disposal. Not only do they need to prove the application of due diligence before approval, they then need to approach potential new homes while following ethical guidelines and challenging the negative perception of object disposal. So what steps have they taken to ensure consistency, effectiveness & most importantly public benefit?

Before focusing in on the collections and disposal candidates, the MoL needed to revisit their internal policies to ensure they were up to date and reflected the ethical guidelines outlined in the Museums Association’s Disposals Toolkit. It was also important to consider the Museum’s Collecting Policy as a guiding resource when looking at an object’s relevance to current collecting practices.

With these measures in place they could then begin the task of assessing their collections and identifying objects with suitable reasons for disposal, such as:

·         Duplicate material
·         Deterioration
·         Unknown provenance/context
·         Relevance

Using these as grounds for disposal the MoL was able to identify approximately 6,000 objects for disposal, which in turn led to the (sometimes tricky) task of proof of ownership and due diligence.

In a perfect world questions such as ‘what is this?’ and ‘where did this come from?’ would not be uttered in a Museum store, but, as we can most likely all attest to….it’s not a perfect world. Tackling the disposal of objects ‘not on inventory’ can be tricky, but as highlighted by MoL, not impossible. As well as applying due diligence to disposal candidates, MoL made use of their collections management system to track the progress of due diligence and further actions needed before approval by the Board of Governors. They also developed a range of questions to be asked of the object to demonstrate the research done:

 MoL Collections Management System

Once the objects presented to the Board were approved the Museum then set to work on finding the most appropriate homes for the objects for which, as we know, there is a strict hierarchy to follow:

Museum Association Disposal Toolkit

Although this can be a rather time consuming process it is also a very rewarding one, as highlighted by Lizzie and Naomi. I was particularly interested to hear more about ‘creative disposals’ and the potential interested parties which lie outside of the sector but for which there is also a strong argument for public benefit and keeping objects within the realms of the public domain. Of course these avenues would only be approached after advertising and offering to Accredited and Non-Accredited Museums, but still an interesting option to bear in mind when handling disposals.

Lizzie and Naomi gave an excellent insight into the challenges of a large-scale rationalisation project. At first glance a task of this size can seem daunting but they have demonstrated how a positive approach produces positive results and that disposals don’t always need to be seen as ‘devilish’……..

By Jenni Fewery, Collections Information Officer, Science Museum

Blog post on ‘Clandon Park Fire: Managing a destroyed collection and considerations on the route to formal disposal’ by Rosamund West, Documentation Officer, Horniman Museum and Gardens

At the recent UKRG ‘Art of Acquisitions and the devilish nature of Disposals’ event Claire Nodder, House and Collections Manager/Assistant Conservation Lead, spoke to us about National Trust’s property Clandon Park in Surrey and the devastating fire of April 2015. This being anyone who works in collections worst nightmare, Claire explained how the fire has effected the property and its contents and how a policy of retention and disposal has been developed. The experience of Clandon Park and its staff presents a valuable lesson in how to plan for the worst.

Clandon Park is an accredited museum, and had 55,000 visitors a year. The Palladian mansion was built for Lord Onslow in the 1720s. The National Trust took over in 1956 and the house was refurbished when a collection of 18th century furniture and the porcelain collection of collector Hannah Gubbay. The house had very few indigenous objects, the attraction being the building. Other users and stakeholders in Clandon Park were the Surrey Infantry Museum, housed in the basement, a restaurant separate to the Trust, and staff accommodation.

The fire and the damage caused

On the 29th April 2015 a fire started in the basement, spreading throughout the building, eventually breaking through the roof. The fire brigade were on the site for eight days and helped many salvage objects, including cutting paintings out of frames. Once the Fire Brigade had left the property was handed back to the National Trust, who immediately shut the site down. As the fire had spread, rooms fell in on each other and damage to the structure was excessive. Before the property could be accessed, large burned timbers had to be lifted out using a crane to prevent further damage. Claire showed us before and after photographs of rooms which showed the total devastation caused by the fire.

The initial salvage after the blaze involved assembling rescued objects on the front lawn as objects were coming out of the building. Inventory control was initially difficult, and made more difficult, by the lack of light. Clandon Park had an agreement with a local school as part of their salvage plan to be able to use a school building to house and process salvaged objects. Fortunately Clandon Park’s Collections Management System (CMS) was online and so in theory could be accessed remotely. However, the connection at the school was slow and staff reverted back to using paper for their inventory. Inventory and condition checks were carried out by curators and conservators, assisted by staff from nearby National Trust houses. At the time of the fire Clandon Park was in the middle of re-numbering their objects with a new numbering system-however, not all of the objects had yet been re-numbered.

After the fire

Claire explained how lessons had been learned from Uppark, Windsor Castle and Glasgow School of Art, all heritage buildings that had suffered fire damage. Stabilising the building had to take precedent, so there was no access to the building until September 2015, when the archaeological salvage began.  The processing of objects began with the site being divided into quadrants, and as objects came out, they were assigned a quadrant code and a room code. Due to the floors collapsing in on each other, objects were found in unexpected places within the ruin of the building. The House team were invaluable, drawing up handwritten plans of where objects were in each room. This knowledge was crucial, as was Surrey Infantry Museum providing photographs of their displays.

Retention and Disposal policy

Staff decided, ‘if in doubt, retain’. There were two phases of retention and disposal: the first, initial salvage from the building; and the second, post-salvage, ‘taking stock’. In phase one ‘material trees’ for each different material type were given to the archaeological contractors. Claire showed examples of these for ceramic, plaster, and wood. These showed types of each material that could be salvaged, and what to do with each piece. For instance, the ceramics material tree was divided up into sanitary ware, decorative tiles, utility wares and decorative ceramics, each with their retention or disposal instructions for the salvage team.

The ownership of objects being salvaged had to be established, with many objects being loans in – a registrar’s nightmare! CMS records were consulted to establish this and owners were being kept informed. As the salvage operation progressed, and more material came out of the house, the retention and disposal policy evolved. In the grounds of the house, the archaeological salvagers had ‘keep, ‘needs decision’, and ‘dispose’ piles. These could then be looked at by staff.


Staff set up a ‘salvage village’ in the grounds to process objects under cover in poly-tunnels. As the lead roof had collapsed in, all objects coming out of the house were contaminated, so everything went in to quarantine before it could be cleaned. With is no on-site internet access staff recorded information on Excel spreadsheets, also recording a percentage of how complete each object is, with some inevitably being as low as 1%. This does not, however, indicate disposal candidates as it is hoped more pieces of objects may turn up at a later date.

Going forward

The fire and subsequent salvage operation has given the National Trust the opportunity to learn more about the structure of the house, for instance, a pistachio nut was found in a piece of the plaster. The process for Clandon Park will be long, but it has been made easier by having a good salvage plan in place. Clandon Park are now working towards the formal deaccessioning process, though there are still rooms in the building that cannot yet be reached.

By Rosamund West, Documentation Officer, Horniman Museum and Gardens