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With more than seven million items in the Royal BC Museum collections and 27 linear kilometres of records in the BC Archives, our collections are both an enviable historical resource and a massive undertaking to properly steward.
A vital element of managing the museum and archives collections is deaccessioning: the formal process of removing an object, material or specimen from the collections. Managing the collections is a dynamic process, as the composition of the collections is ever changing.
Deaccessioning happens regularly, but never hastily or without robust conversation. The process is strictly guided by museum policy.
It’s important to note that repatriating Indigenous cultural belongings, ancestral remains and burial belongings in the museum’s care are separate processes.
The disposal of government records in the BC Archives is also a separate process, governed by BC’s Information Management Act.
The Royal BC Museum’s approach to deaccessioning is consistent with best practice in the field. The Canadian Museums Association notes that
“Deaccessioning is a necessary and appropriate tool in collections management for any museum or gallery. Curatorially-motivated disposal is an integral part of collection management and a way for a museum or gallery to refine its collection.”
The International Council of Museums also provides straightforward guidelines on deaccessioning objects from museum collections.
There are many good reasons for the Royal BC Museum to consider deaccessioning. The museum’s collections policy identifies why and how we might deaccession.
Royal BC Museum curators, archivists and collections managers know the collections very well. In managing the collections, one of their major concerns is whether materials have provincial significance or help us further our understanding of BC’s human or natural history. If they don’t, they are considered for deaccession.
Staff members also flag objects that may be better cared for at other institutions. We recognize that some material in our collections may have greater significance for smaller regional museums or archives. We see the value in helping our peers grow their own collections.
Material that has deteriorated or is damaged beyond repair is also subject to scrutiny. So too with material that was acquired illegally or unethically by current collecting standards. Duplicates (or objects that are very similar to others in the collection) are often considered for deaccession.
Finally, natural history specimens without data—most importantly, where and when they were collected—have little scientific value and are candidates for deaccessioning. Preserved specimens degraded over time also are subject to deaccession.
Our collections policy identifies the ways we may divest ourselves of a deaccessioned item.
When we make the decision to divest, we do our best to ensure that other galleries, libraries, archives or museums have the opportunity to take care of these items and share them with their communities.
Exchanging, transferring, donating or selling deaccessioned materials to other organizations is our first preference when we reach the point of divestment.
When this isn’t possible, the collections policy directs us to consider sale at public auction.
Curators, archivists and collections managers are usually the first to identify objects that they recommend for deaccessioning. The advice of registrars, conservators and others in the Royal BC Museum community is essential when we’re considering the composition of the collections.
Ultimately, the Collections Committee makes the final decision about objects and submits their recommendations to the Board of Directors.
These decisions are never made lightly by anyone in the museum and archives.