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Deaccessioning and Its Discontents: A Critical History

Deaccessioning and Its Discontents: A Critical History

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Publication Date: July 24th, 2018
The MIT Press
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The first history of the deaccession of objects from museum collections that defends deaccession as an essential component of museum practice.

Museums often stir controversy when they deaccession works—formally remove objects from permanent collections—with some critics accusing them of betraying civic virtue and the public trust. In fact, Martin Gammon argues in Deaccessioning and Its Discontents, deaccession has been an essential component of the museum experiment for centuries. Gammon offers the first critical history of deaccessioning by museums from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century, and exposes the hyperbolic extremes of “deaccession denial”—the assumption that deaccession is always wrong—and “deaccession apology”—when museums justify deaccession by finding some fault in the object—as symptoms of the same misunderstanding of the role of deaccessions in proper museum practice. He chronicles a series of deaccession events in Britain and the United States that range from the disastrous to the beneficial, and proposes a typology of principles to guide future deaccessions.

Gammon describes the liquidation of the British Royal Collections after Charles I's execution—when masterworks were used as barter to pay the king's unpaid bills—as establishing a precedent for future deaccessions. He recounts, among other episodes, U.S. Civil War veterans who tried to reclaim their severed limbs from museum displays; the 1972 “Hoving affair,” when the Metropolitan Museum of Art sold a number of works to pay for a Velázquez portrait; and Brandeis University's decision (later reversed) to close its Rose Art Museum and sell its entire collection of contemporary art. An appendix provides the first extensive listing of notable deaccessions since the seventeenth century. Gammon ultimately argues that vibrant museums must evolve, embracing change, loss, and reinvention.

About the Author

Martin Gammon, formerly Managing Director of Museum Services in North America for Bonhams Auctioneers, is a founder of the Pergamon Art Group, which advises museums and private collections on bequests and collection management. He appears regularly as an appraiser on the PBS series Antiques Roadshow.

Praise for Deaccessioning and Its Discontents: A Critical History

With its echo of Freud in the title, Deaccessioning and Its Discontents is as much a fascinating, penetrating study of psychological unease as it is an indispensable art-historical account.—Art Fund

Gammon, in his fascinating observation of the goings-on of American museums, is a new world man, [and] the case studies he presents in the book are extraordinary...

The Key Reporter

A valuable contribution to the literature on museums, filling gaps in our knowledge and offering thought-provoking insights about the formation and alteration of collections. Each book is beautifully printed and, for nerds like me, the appendices and notes amplify the authors' observations and invite further inquiry.


It is to the credit of Martin Gammon that his approach to the subject is not deeply polemical (although he certainly has views he wishes to express), but rather historical and analytical. After outlining his topic in a lengthy introduction, he presents first the British experience and then the American, with several extensive case studies and an appendix covering further notable cases from 1622 to 2014.