Canadian Museums Association Deaccessioning Guidelines

A. Clarification of terms

B. Introduction

C. The ethics and legalities of deaccessioning

D. The whys and whens to deaccession

E. Who should be involved in the consultative process?

F. Determining how the object was acquired

G. Method of divestment

H. How to manage the process

I. The consequences of an unethical decision to deaccession

Checklist for deaccessioning objects



A. Clarification of terms

Deaccessioning is the formal process of removal of an object from the collection of an institution.

Disposal is the physical removal of the object from the organization by the process decided upon by the governing authority of an institution.


B. Introduction

There is nothing wrong inherently about deaccessioning. Deaccessioning is a necessary and appropriate tool in collections management for any museum or gallery. Curatorially-motivated disposal is an integral part of collection management and a way for a museum or gallery to refine its collection. Oftentimes, an object does not fit the organization’s scope of collections, cannot be cared for properly or poses a hazard to staff, so the object may be considered for deaccessioning. Disposing of an item is not without risk, however, significant benefits may be accrued if the disposal process is properly managed.

The CMA’s Deaccessioning Guidelines provide general information and guidance on curatorially-motivated disposal from an institution’s collection. The Guidelines do not discuss individual types of collections and the potential issues that may relate to specific collections. Nor do the guidelines cover disposal through return or repatriation.

The purpose of the Guidelines is to serve as a stimulus for institutions to consider a range of factors when making any decision concerning deaccessioning of an object. They are intended to ensure that the disposal benefits your institution, your collection and the community you serve.

The CMA Guidelines should be used in conjunction with your institution’s existing collection policy and should not be considered a substitute for legal advice. The guardianship of an institution’s collection is vested within the institution’s governing body. This body must determine that the decisions made to deaccession an object meets the standards of expertise and has to take into account the potential legal ramifications of all the stakeholders. The final decision to deaccession an object must be approved by the governing authority and fully documented.

Whatever the course of action an institution chooses to undertake, the decision must be articulated clearly with proper documentation.


C. The ethics and legalities of deaccessioning

The CMA Guidelines fully support the responsible disposal of an object from an institution’s collection as long as the ethical and legal requirements are adhered to.

C1. Key ethical considerations include the following:

  • Examine/understand your institution's goals and mandate/revised mandate vis-à-vis disposal of an object.
  • Know and understand your institution's collection policy and/or create one.
  • Manage the process effectively by defining the reasons why you are deaccessioning.
  • Demonstrate the benefits to both the institution’s collection and to its stakeholders.

C2. Key legal considerations include the following:

  • Review documentation of any object you are considering to deaccession in order to determine any legal restrictions that prohibits the institution’s ability to dispose of an object.
  • Restrictions may include specific legislation; the charitable status of the institution; conditions attached to a specific donation or bequest of an object.
  • In the event the institution is planning to deaccession an unaccessioned item where the provenance is not clearly established, a risk assessment of this decision should be undertaken.
  • When there is any doubt on the legality of the disposal, consult independent legal counsel.


D. The whys and whens to deaccession

D1. The primary outcomes for deaccessioning an object include:

  • Improved care for the object
  • Improved access to the object
  • Retention of an object within the community
  • Removal of a potentially hazardous item

D2. Factors to consider:

  • Why was the object initially acquired?
  • Is the object currently in use or on display?
  • Is the object redundant?
  • Would the object be better suited in another institution’s collection?

D3. Why deaccession?

There may be a number of valid reasons your institution will deaccession an object, including:

i. Relevancy — The collecting focus of the institution has been refined or altered and the object is not relevant to the institution’s mandate and goals.
ii. Duplication — The object is a duplicate. Does it make sense to have one or more in the collection?
iii. Under-used — Some objects have never even seen the light of day. If there is little or no likelihood of the object being displayed, it may be appropriate to deaccession.
iv. Deterioration — The object over time has been damaged or slowly deteriorated. The costs of conservation outweigh the value to the collection.
v. Hazardous — Institutions may have an object within their collection that poses a potential health and safety issue to their staff or visitors.
vi. Storage — Institutions may simply be unable to store the object properly.
vii. Provenance — The original owner or family member has provided legal title indicating the institution does not legally own the object.


E. Who should be involved in the consultative process?

While the final decision of whether or not an institution may successfully deaccession an object rests with the governing body, input from the following stakeholders should be sought in the process of reaching a final decision:

i. Institutional Staff — As well as curatorial and exhibition staff, include individuals working in a wide range of disciplines within the institution — marketing, interpretation, education and visitor services.
ii. Donors — In each instance, institutions must consider the original terms and conditions surrounding the donation. Where possible, donors should be consulted at the initial decision stage as well as to inform them on a courtesy basis. In some cases, the object maybe returned to the original donor.
iii. External funders — In the event the deaccessioned object were acquired or conserved using external funds, the appropriate funding body should be consulted.
iv. Stakeholders — Institutions should consult with other individuals who have a vested interest in the respective collection. Stakeholders may include, visitors, researchers and in the case of contemporary art, living artists. Consideration should be given to striking a panel of stakeholders ensuring that the objective of openness and transparency in the deaccessioning process are met.


F. Determining how the object was acquired

The current status of an object and the method by which the institution acquired it should be fully investigated and determined prior to reaching a decision to deaccession the object.

The following represent traditional methods of acquiring an object:

i. Purchase — If the item was purchased with the assistance of a funding agency, contact the relevant body to determine the appropriate course of action.
ii. Donation or Bequest — Determine what the conditions were at the time the object(s) was donated and the adverse effect that deaccessioning the object might have, for example, tax consequences for the donor or the institution, which would need to be verified with the appropriate government agency.
iii. Loan — If the item is on loan, contact the lender to discuss the return of the object.


G. Method of divestment

Whatever your institution determines is the best way to deaccession an object, the following methods should be taken into consideration for placing an object:

i. Accredited Institutions — Identify accredited museums with appropriate collections that may be interested in acquiring the object. Where possible preference should be given to this method of deaccessioning an object.
ii. Third Parties — Identify other parties who may be interested in the object and approach directly. This method should only be considered in the event, that no other institution is able to acquire the object.
iii. Return to Donor — If it is impossible to maintain an object in the public domain and no other institution is able to acquire the object an institution may consider returning an item to the donors. This method isn't without serious ramifications which may include:
    • Is the institution legally able to return the object?
    • Can the donor be traced?
    • Is the institution risking dispute by the donor or family members?
    • What will the reaction of the public be?


H. How to manage the process

Any undertaking involving deaccessioning of an object by an institution will require significant resources and work. Careful planning and thorough management will help to ensure the successful outcome. Prior to commencing the process be sure to consider the following:

  • Create a timeline to assist in the management of the process.
  • Deaccessioning is not without hard costs. Create a budget to ensure that all the necessary resources including staff time are available to complete the task.
  • Identify what staff will be involved in the process and their specific responsibilities.
  • Develop both an internal and external communication strategy.
  • Finalize a structure for reviewing, reporting and approving the various tasks.


I. The consequences of an unethical decision to deaccession

Unethical decisions to deaccession objects from your collection may have significant and often negative consequences for your institution. These may include:

  • Loss or damage of your community’s trust
  • Adverse and negative publicity affecting the institution’s ability to secure funding
  • A negative impact on the working relationships with other institutions who may decline to work collaboratively or become unwilling to loan objects

Checklist for deaccessioning objects

Click here to download a PDF

Initial steps

  • Consider undertaking a full review of the collection.
  • Develop a project plan and allocate staff resources to manage the process.
  • Create an assessment framework to assist in evaluating objects within the collection and their suitability for disposal.
  • Secure your institution’s governing body’s agreement to the potential deaccessioning of the object.


Making the critical decision to deaccession

  • Make decisions to dispose as part of an overall collections management strategy/policy within your institution.
  • Specify the desired outcome.
  • Articulate the curatorial reasons for deaccessioning an object.
  • Seek independent specialist advice, if necessary.
  • Consider the views of all stakeholders.
  • Develop a communications strategy.
  • Ensure the museum is legally able to deaccession the object.
  • Recommend a method of disposal.


Key considerations

  • What is the desired end result?
  • If successful, how will the method of disposal help to achieve the desired outcome?
  • What are the benefits of the course of action selected?
  • What is the potential for increased use of the item through the proposed course of action? (In the case of objects being recycled or destroyed, there may be none.)
  • Is the proposed recipient able to provide adequate care and opportunities for access?
  • What might the public reaction be?
  • What if any are the potential risks?


What to do now that the decision has been made

  • Identify potential appropriate institutional recipients and contact directly.
  • Publicize the availability of the object through the CMA, other specialist publications and websites.
  • Inform the donor, if applicable.
  • If a new location can be found, agree terms and conditions of transfer (or sale).
  • Ensure complete transparency and communicate the disposal to the public.
  • Ensure transfer of legal title to the recipient.
  • Document the process.


What to do if the attempt to deaccession an item is unsuccessful

  • Reconsider the institution’s decision to deaccession and object.
  • Consider possible alternative uses of the object with the institution.
  • Consider whether the desired outcome could be achieved through another method of disposal.


Click here to download a PDF

Collections management policy

  • Approved policy detailing scope and ability to dispose


Determine outcome of the project

  • Detail an assessment framework


Select potential object(s) to be deaccessioned


Confirm institution is legally able to dispose of the object(s)

If yes:

  • Ensure ethical considerations have been met
  • Select the methods of disposal best suited to achieving your objectives
  • Prepare a communications strategy
  • Source avenues to promote/record the disposal
    • Successful?
      • Considerations:
        • Agree on terms and conditions with the recipient
        • Document the progress
        • Transfer the legal title
        • Communicate with your stakeholders
    • Unsuccessful?
      • Considerations:
        • Revisit decision to dispose of the object
        • Can the outcome be achieved through an alternative method of disposal


If no:

  • Investigate other options
    • If the object was loaned to the institution, consider returning to the original owner
    • If provenance is unclear, undertake additional research to clarify
    • If available, contact funder or donor and determine if other conditions are possible
    • When is the Deaccessioning of an object unacceptable?
    • Primary need is for financial reasons
    • Undertaking without adherence to collections policy
    • Undertaking on an ad hoc basis, paying little or no attention to expert advice
    • Is not in the best interests of the stakeholders


When is the deaccessioning of an object unacceptable?

  • Primary need is for financial reasons
  • Undertaking without adherence to collections policy
  • Undertaking on an ad hoc basis, paying little or no attention to expert advice
  • Is not in the best interests of the stakeholders



A special thanks to all the presenters and attendees of the 2014 Deaccessioning Symposium as well as the following committee members:

  • Danièle Archambault, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
  • Glenn Bloom, Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt LLP
  • Victoria Henry, Canada Council Art Bank (retired)
  • Robert Laidler, Museum Foundation of Canada
  • Sue Lamothe, Canadian Museums Association
  • Moira McCaffrey, CAMDO
  • Nancy Noble, Museum of Vancouver
  • Myriam Proulx, Canadian Museum of History
  • Sue-Ann Ramsden, Canadian Museums Association

Graphic Design by: Catapult Design Project Management by: Ramsden & Associates

Originally published in 2015. Reviewed, updated and formatted for HTML October 2020.