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The Disposal Debate

The Natural History Collections Bioblitz Review project is well underway and we’ve celebrated a few of the Star Specimens already. We’ll feature the significant specimens in more detail soon. The Bioblitz project isn’t all about Stars, though.

  • NH.92.71.1, These butterflies were part of a decorative collection. They came to us in this very faded condition; we have much more accurate specimens in the collection. Taking this and their lack of scientific data into account, this material is a potential candidate for deaccession., Photo by Russell Dornan
    These butterflies were part of a decorative collection. They came to us in this very faded condition; we have much more accurate specimens in the collection. Taking this and their lack of scientific data into account, this material is a potential candidate for deaccession., Photo by Russell Dornan

In addition to discovering exactly what we have and how we can prioritise use of the collection in the future, we are also considering disposal. As well as many exceptional specimens, each of our Bioblitz experts highlighted some that are less fantastic. Some specimens left us scratching our heads about what to use them for or why we have them at all.

This is a common issue for museums. No matter how big the institution or how broad the collections policy, most have material which may be of more use elsewhere. Whether that’s with our Learning team, in another institution or, sometimes, if they’re a danger to the collections or other people, they need to be destroyed. There are a variety of objects to which this may apply: those that fall outside the museum’s collections policy; duplicates; underused items; those that are irreparably damaged or deteriorated; and items that pose a threat to health and safety.

In some museum circles, the mere whisper of “disposal” or “de-accession” is met with resistance. Although this is understandable and great care must be taken by the organisation to ensure nothing is disposed of irresponsibly, disposal is an integral part of responsible collections management when carried out in the correct manner and with careful consideration. The decision to dispose needs to be part of a collections management strategy and preferably as part of a collections review, such as our Bioblitz project.

Of course, the language doesn’t help. It is important to understand what museums mean when talking about disposal. The words used hint at “throwing stuff in the bin” but these are misleading. "De-accessioning" means to permanently remove an object from the museum’s collection. “Disposal” is simply one of the many forms this removal takes, including (from most to least desirable): free gift/transfer/sale to another accredited museum or public body; exchange of items between museums; return to donor; transfer/sale outside the public domain; recycling items and, ultimately, destruction.

Before disposing of an item from a collection, a museum must have clear and transparent reasons for doing so. In most cases it is done in an attempt to preserve the object, or because it will be of greater public benefit in its new home. This may improve the care for or access to it, allowing the public to enjoy it more fully elsewhere. Sometimes an object may pose a health and safety risk or be beyond repair, requiring it to be removed from the collection.  Incidental benefits of disposal may include freeing up resources to care for and use other parts of the collection more effectively.

The Museums Association have put together a Disposal Toolkit which discusses the ethical and legal context, how to manage and record the process and who to get involved in the decision making. We acknowledge the process isn’t a simple one and that some people will always be unsure of it. However, the Bioblitz Review Project has allowed us to tackle this head on in a positive and forward thinking manner and has already given some of our underused specimens renewed purpose.