Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures

School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies

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Museums aren’t havens from the market’s fickle fashions – nor should they be

November 6th, 2015

New York Metropolitan Museum of Art image (photo Mark Westgarth)

In this week’s online magazine, The Conversation, Dr Mark Westgarth (School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds) addresses the often contentious practice of de-accessioning artworks from museums, comparing attitudes in the USA and UK.

The article has been written in response to a recent New York Metropolitan Museum of Art auction where over 200 lots of 17th, 18th and some early 19th century British furniture and decorative art were sold, raising more than $4m.

Dr Westgarth considers the rationale for the disposal of these particular works and for selling off museum pieces in general, on both sides of the Atlantic, largely as the result of a push to reflect changing fashions and tastes. He says in the article:

‘American museums are often seen as having a more laissez-faire attitude to disposing of items than their British counterparts. In the UK, there is a strong presumption that objects should be retained: the Ethics Committee of the Museums’ Association has official power to levy severe sanctions on sales that don’t conform to strict rules of disposal, often withdrawing accreditation and restricting access to future funding.

‘But the truth is that museums in the US are equally constrained when it comes to selling their collections. The American Association of Museums prohibits the proceeds from sales being used for anything other than new acquisitions or the care of collections, and strictly forbids selling works of art to fund operating costs.

‘The Met’s policy clearly sets out the rationale for disposal by sale and, crucially, how the proceeds arising from the sale can be used. So the fear often cited that disposal by sale from museums is a slippery slope to a broader use of cultural assets is perhaps, at present, unfounded.

‘Besides, why shouldn’t the museum dispose of objects? To view the museum as a space where history stands still is to misunderstand the nature of history itself. As the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce famously said in 1941, “all history is contemporary history”.’

The full article can be found here.

The Conversation is an online independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public.

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