Introduction to disposal
Collections should be developed and maintained with care to preserve them for future generations. It’s important to collect with an awareness of capacity and a commitment to care. Curatorially motivated disposal is an integral part of responsible collections management.
Disposal of museum objects isn’t always straightforward or without risk. As objects are bequeathed, donated, or purchased in the interests of the public, it’s important to consider the duty of a museum when disposing of an item.
This guide to disposal provides general information on curatorially motivated disposal of items from museum collections.
Anyone considering disposal within museums should read the Museums Association’s full guide.
The advice provided in the MA tool kit is underpinned by the Museums Association’s Code of Ethics. It should be used in conjunction with your museum’s existing policies. Understanding the nuances of disposal is essential to ethical and forward-thinking collections management.
Considerations before disposal
Before undertaking the disposal of any item, you need to think carefully about the intended outcomes. Your outcomes should always demonstrate how your museum’s public benefit will increase as a result.
Your primary outcomes for disposing of a museum object should be one of the following:
- Improved care for the object
- Improved access to and enjoyment of the object
- Improved context for the object
- Continued retention of the object within the public domain
- Removal of any hazard posed by the object
Other outcomes are possible, such as freeing up resources for better care or to create more space, but decisions should lead towards one of these outcomes.
Selecting objects for disposal
Before selecting an object to remove from your museum’s collection, ask yourself questions such as why the item was acquired in the first place and whether disposing of it will benefit your museum and the public.
You might want to dispose of items that are:
- Unable to be adequately cared for
- A threat to health
Any selection for disposal must be done with ethical considerations which you can read more about in Museum Association’s ethical disposal guide.
Who is involved?
The decision to dispose of an item is not made in isolation. You should seek the views of:
- The museum workforce
- External funders who may have been involved in the object’s acquisition
- Donors, who are integral to the survival of the museum
- Other stakeholders such as visitors, researchers, and artists
Once your museum has selected an object for disposal, the current condition status of the object, whether it forms an intrinsic part of a wider collection (especially a Recognised Collection) and the method of its entry into the collection should be investigated. This could effect any proposed course of action and may influence the method of disposal.
Determine whether the object was loaned, donated, purchased, or bequeathed, then check that you’re legally allowed to dispose of it.
Choose one of the following methods for disposing of objects, remembering that objects should be kept within the public domain as much as possible
The methods you can use to dispose of an object are:
- Gift or transfer to another Accredited museum. This is the preferred method as it ensures future care for objects and maintains cooperation between museums.
- Exchange of objects between museums.
- Gift or transfer to another organisation within the public domain. This should only be considered once it has been established that an Accredited museum will not take the object.
- Return to donor. This is useful if it’s not possible to keep the object in the public domain. Only return to a donor once public options, such as other museums, have been exhausted.
- Sale of an object to an Accredited museum. There is a strong preference and tradition of free gifts. However, some museums may wish to sell objects that they purchased with their own funds.
- Transfer outside of the public domain. In the rare case that you cannot pass your object onto museums, some enthusiasts and special interest groups may take on ownership of an object.
- Sale outside of the public domain. This isn’t recommended as an initial course of action and should only happen after it’s been listed online as available to other museums.
- Recycling. If a new object owner and location cannot be found, consider giving an object to charity or selling it as scrap.
- Destruction. This should only happen when the object poses a health risk.
Read the full guide for further considerations with each of these methods.
Recording the process
It’s important that all aspects of the disposal process are documented. This should be done to Spectrum standards.
Any records should include:
- Reasons for disposal
- Desired outcomes
- Opinions and advice considered
- The method of disposal
- Conclusion of process
- Any conditions attached
- Information relating to the object and photographs
- Transfer documentation
- Note of any new location
As with all areas of museum practice, museums must ensure transparency with the public, their workforce, and stakeholders.
Museums should keep the public informed of plans relating to the disposal of objects through press and media. Proactive and consistent communication can help to increase the public’s understanding and awareness of this area of museum practice.
Museums should adopt an open and honest approach that explains the context and benefit of the planned course of action. It’s important to set out publicly the museum’s overall policy on disposal against which individual cases can be explained.
Read the full guide for advice on the ethics of disposal, official codes of practice and in-depth guidance on all of these topics.
The following links will also be helpful for disposal:
- UK Accreditation Partnership: Collections development template
- Museums Association: Code of Ethics
- Museums Association: Collections
- Collections Trust: Cultural Property Advice
- The National Collecting Scheme Scotland
- National Museum Directors’ Conference: Too much stuff?
This video was produced for the UCM/SHARE Museums East Collections Care Conference ‘R is for Review and Rationalisation’ in January 2022. Ruth Burwood explains the disposal process to ensure Accreditation compliance is maintained. Where ACE is referenced in the video, museums in Scotland should substitute MGS.
For more information on collections care, see our other advice guides.