Dealing with orphaned collections: a solution to de-assessment in closed museums

SOG_png01I had the honour of interviewing Peter van Mensch and Leontine Meijer-van Mensch about the Stiching Onterfd Goed (literally “Foundation of Disinherited Goods”), that takes care of the dismantling of museum collections.

The idea of this interview came from a small article on Stiching Onterfd Goed (see link below), written by the couple and promoted among the members of COMCOL – Committee for Collection Development, ICOM.

You can read the interview below:

(Em português, aqui.)

1. Is the Stichting Onterfd Goed (Foundation of Disinherited Goods) a private foundation? How is it supported?

It is a private foundation. It is a foundation in order to guarantee the non-profit (not-for-profit) status. The foundation generates income from the sale of collection items that are destined to be de-accessioned. A second source of income is the fee asked from organisations that invite the foundation to assist in de-accession projects. Thirdly, the foundation receives (government) subsidies for certain projects.

2. The idea of orphaned objects being offered on e-Bay would raise a lot of dissenting voices in Brazil. How did the public react to that in The Netherlands?

In general the public reacts positive. In the Netherlands de-accessioning has been discussed for already a very long time and the principle is broadly accepted. In 2000 a guideline was adopted by the Dutch museum world which has been updated two times since (see http://www.comcol-icom.org/wp-content/uploads/LAMO.pdf). Provided the guideline is followed, museums are hardly criticized. Museums have used e-Bay before (the Stichting Onterfd Goed is not the first) as alternative to the more traditional auctions especially as a method to de-institutionalize the care and ownership of heritage. The guideline (also followed by the Stichting) requires that de-accessioned collection items are first offered to other museums. E-Bay is only an option when no museum has shown interest.

3. The “adoption” concept, in which the new owners are “asked to properly care for the objects and keep them available for exhibitions” imply any other obligations, such as periodical inspection performed by the government or priority in case the State wants to buy the piece back?

No. The term “adoption” is used, but in legal terms it means the transfer of full ownership without restrictions. The new owner accepts being registered (to facilitate invitations to participate in exhibitions) and promises to take good care of the object and to keep it available for exhibitions. It is a promise, not a resolutive condition.

4. The Foundation claims that “museums are not necessarily the only nor the best places for the care of heritage.” Could you talk a little bit further on the matter?

The project is much inspired by the ideology of New Museology (two of the three initiators are former students of the Reinwardt Academy). The premise is that the relation between community and heritage should be reconsidered in terms responsibility, involving issues of intellectual and legal ownership, as well as ownership, care and use. The ultimate principle behind the project is the concepts of “participation”, “shared ownership” and “heritage community”. Networks of stakeholders (museums and other professional heritage institutions, other collecting institutions, private collectors and any owner of a heritage object) share a responsibility for the care and use of certain parts of heritage. This involves the very definition of heritage.

5. The Stichting Onterfd Goed was started during the global economic crisis and is the direct result of the closure of a museum at Tilburg, which became victim of austerity policy on municipal level. Will the Foundation survive when the crisis is over?

Perhaps, but probably not. It is expected that in the future more museums (especially small specialised museums based on former private collections) will be closed or be forced to merge. To some extend this has to do with the global economic crisis, but even when the economy will recover, it is not expected that national and local authorities are eager to spend more money on museums and heritage. Museums are expected to generate a substantial part of their income from their own activities (entry, sales, etc.). This ability to generate income is commonly considered as a prove of social relevancy and sustainability.

To know more about the Stiching Onterfd Goed:

More about Peter van Mensch’s & Leontine Meijer-vanMensch’s work:

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