Destruction by Deaccessioning

Mark-Rothko-Untitled-1960-768x1049

By Steven Miller, Guest Blogger

Barring loss of life, perhaps the most alarming tragedy museums fear is collection destruction.  We recoil at the thought of objects disappearing from cherished public repositories of our shared culture. Diligent museums focus considerable attention on protecting the art, artifacts and scientific specimens in their possession.     

To be sure, in spite of the best protective measures, losses happen.  A few horrible examples include: The thirteen works of art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, in 1990; the looting of the Baghdad Museum during the Iraq War in 2003; the recent fire and destruction at the National Museum of Brazil.  Fortunately, these museum catastrophes tend to be exceptional. Statistically, most of the things most museums own are relatively safe. Or so we thought.  

In May the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) sold a large painting by the Jewish Russian émigré Mark Rothko (1903-1970).  The action was legal and approved by the institution’s board of trustees. At auction the picture realized $43.75M ($50.1M with fees). Where’s the Rothko now?  Auction houses, in this case, Sotheby’s, understandably do not reveal bidder information.  

Whether by sale, gifts, or trashing, the disposal of museum collections is almost as old as museums.  Today unrestricted selling on the open market is highly popular. Or, perhaps it simply enjoys the most notoriety.  The SFMOMA incident is only a recent example. This subtraction choice raises a large question in my mind. What preservation responsibilities do museums have for pieces they deaccession? Once something is on the auction block, for example, chances are good it will leave the protected public realm forever, lost as a document held for years in public trust on behalf of past, present and future generations.  

The sale of museum collections on the open market seems a civic tragedy. This arena of private commerce is not devoted to preserving things for public benefit. An argument can be made that anyone paying $50.1M for something has a vested interest in keeping it safe.  But who knows? The secret world of art wheeling and dealing destroys scores of paintings with varnish and wax relining–no doubt to the horror of artists like Picasso and Braque–or through neglect or ignorance.

It is interesting the gusto with which deaccessioning is now embraced by museums who rarely (ever?) express concern for the physical well-being of what leaves the collection. How does this reflect what Steven Lubar writes in his excellent book: Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present, [Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, London, England, 2017, p. 137]. “When museums collect things, they take on ethical obligations not only to the communities those objects come from, or are meaningful to, but also to the objects themselves.” Does this suggest why deaccessioning still elicits loud criticism?  Does it suggest why complaints always come from outside the museum world?    

Controversies about museum deaccessioning inevitably focus on boards of trustees as they make final departure decisions for pieces deemed no longer a fit.  Questions are asked: Why don’t the trustees pony up whatever money is needed in a particular circumstance? Is the museum in financial duress? Why not sell things to another museum, thus keeping the piece and its records altruistically preserved?  What recourse do scholars have when seeking information about lost collections? How do donors respond to the loss of their gifts? Aside from a convenient tax deduction, who will donate to a place for which collections are money in the bank to be raided at will?    

Years ago I wrote a piece called “Guilt-Free Deaccessioning” for the American Association of Museums’ magazine Museum News (now Museum) about the advantages of deaccessioning by inter-museum transfer.  Today I would use a different title: Win, Win, Win, Win Deaccessioning.  Why? Because the museum removing an item presumably wins with its departure, the museum getting the object wins by its acquisition, the object wins by surviving, and the public wins with continued access.  Inter-museum transfer happens. I hope it becomes a first-choice option rather than an afterthought. It will certainly reduce the growing notion that all museum collections can be purchased.


A Bard College graduate, Steven Miller has been in the museum field for nearly five decades as a curator, director, trustee, writer, critic, and consultant.  A curator with the Museum of the City of New York for sixteen years, he subsequently administered and directed five regional history museums. He also taught in several graduate museum studies programs including sixteen years with the Seton Hall University MA Program in Museum Professions. He received a Graduate Certificate in the Principles of Conservation Science, International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, Rome, Italy.  He is the author of
The Anatomy of a Museum: An Insider’s Text, Wiley, 2018; Deaccessioning Today: Theory and Practice, Rowman & Littlefield, 2018; and How to Get a Museum Job: An Inside Perspective, Rowman & Littlefield,  2019. Deaccessioning is a subject that has long intrigued him.

Image: Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1960; 69 x 50 in.; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, acquired through a gift of Peggy Guggenheim; © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York; photo: Katherine Du Tiel


2 Comments on “Destruction by Deaccessioning”

  1. Elizabeth Beaudoin says:

    The criticism of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is unfair. Through the sale of a single painting, they were able to purchase 11 works by 10 different artists. Many of these artists were women and/or artists of color, a diversification that many in and out of the field have been clamoring for. SFMOMA still has FOUR Rothkos in their collection. I doubt another museum could have paid $50 million for a single object (and they probably shouldn’t, considering most museums are typically reliant on low wages, unpaid internships, and on volunteers in every-day operations).

    Furthermore, this criticism skirts the fact that most deaccessioned objects at smaller museums (especially historical societies) are not $50 million paintings, but the refuse of our industrial age. Objects such as tattered furniture, empty soda bottles, and yellowed baby clothing are pretty common at smaller history museums. Sometimes a museum realizes they have 10 of the same object, when only one may ever be displayed. Storage space costs money, and even if you were able to raise the funds to build a new collections storage center, is that even financially responsible? More/bigger buildings means more staff, increased heating/cooling costs, insurance, and general maintenance…which means greater pressure on fundraisers to continue to fund at a higher level year over year.

    • Trevor Jones says:

      I’m with you on this Elizabeth! Are museums fundamentally about objects or people? The focus on large dollar auction sales skews the conversation, as most deaccessioned items have limited monetary value. Transferring what museums don’t need to other museums only moves the problem from one place to another. There is definitely a place for transfering collections, but it does not need to be the default. If a museum’s collections do not support their mission or their audiences, why is the ethical obligation to the collections more important than the ethical obligation to serve people?

      Museums are constipated. Our system makes it very easy to ingest new collections, but very difficult to excrete them. This isn’t healthy for anyone.


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