Peter, Paul, And The Museum Business

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As recounted in the preceding article, the descendants of ,Charles Willson Peale learned a bitter truth: museums are damnably expensive enterprises. Bereft of congressional support and unable to raise sufficient private funds, Peale’s successors ultimately were forced to dismantle his museum’s collections. P. T. Barnum got much of them, most of the rest was scattered to the four quarters of the globe, and some of it disappeared completely. As did the museum.

Today, while public and private funding is a good deal more commonplace than in Peale’s time, museums remain painfully expensive, and many directors find themselves in an almost constant hustle after cash—cash to meet rising labor costs, cash for the expansion of facilities, cash to broaden and complete collections, and, most significantly, cash simply to preserve what is already on hand: paintings have to be cleaned and restored; exhibits have to be repaired when time and public fondling have done their work; documents have to be kept from crumbling to powder; artifacts have to be protected from fire, water, humidity, and extremes of temperature; suitably protective storage space has to be found and maintained. And too often for too many museums, the money to do all this is just not there. “It’s a tragic problem, and it’s been a problem for a lot of musuems for a long, long time,” John E. Yellin of the National Science Foundation has said. “This is a part of the cultural heritage of mankind, and it’s either deteriorating because of poor storage conditions or it’s badly curated … or, I’m afraid to say, both.”

In the long, dim storage corridors of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, row upon stacked row of ancient Indian baskets and pottery recede into the distance, thousands of them, some protected only by clear plastic bags, others by nothing at all. The less capacious working and storage areas of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (where, ironically enough, a good part of the Peale Museum collections now reside) have neither temperature nor humidity control systems, and, according to a report of Science magazine in November, 1978, “The museum does not even have the money to buy window shades to prevent the sun from shining directly on Indian costumes.” And, high in one of the witch’s-hat turrets of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Eskimo kayaks and other artifacts sit unattended in a sorry condition.

The list could go on to include similar problems all over the country, and in the face of them, it is hardly surprising to learn that some museums have turned to that most precarious of financial expedients: robbing Peter to pay Paul. The syndrome is simple enough, as explained by William C. Sturtevant, curator of North American Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution: “Museums that once thought they just had cluttered attics now find they are sitting on collections that in the art world are worth millions. It’s becoming very tempting for … strapped administrators to look at their collections as potential revenue.”

But not without some serious questions being raised about what has come to be called “de-accessioning,” or more simply, “decessioning.” To dispose of collections or even parts of collections, in the eyes of many, is an act that contradicts the very meaning of a museum—and donors or potential donors are wont to view it as an act of downright treachery. The controversy has been spinning along for some time, now; a few years back, for example, it generated feverish publicity when it was revealed that for nearly forty years the Museum of the American Indian in New York had been selling or trading off (“looting,” as one critic put it) pieces of its collections (some of which went to television personality Dick Cavett, who gave them back when the ethics of the transaction were questioned).

More recently, the controversy welled up again—this time in the prestigious, and troubled, Peabody Museum of Harvard University. In the summer of 1978, news seeped out that its director, C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, was planning the sale of hundreds of paintings from the Peabody’s Bushnell and Inman collections to alleviate museum conditions which he described as “shocking.”

This would be no mere rummage sale: the Bushnell Collection contained 387 paintings and drawings of Indians, many of them done by such famous nineteenth-century artists as Peter Rindisbacher, W. H. Holmes, Paul Kane, Alfred Jacob Miller, Seth Eastman, and Carl Wimar: and the Inman Collection consisted of 106 painstaking oil copies by Henry Inman of a series of Indian portraits done by Charles Bird King in the 1830’s (the originals were lost in the Smithsonian’s 1865 fire). Both collections had been described as being of inestimable anthropological value, and were assessed at more than $7,000,000. Nevertheless, Harvard University president Derek C. Bok defended the decision, saying the sale was necessary to protect and preserve the museum’s other collections, and emphasizing that the paintings, “if possible,” would be sold to institutions accessible to the public. There was, however, no guarantee that at least some of the material would not disappear into the hands of art dealers and private collectors.

Reaction within and without the university community was immediate and largely critical. Perhaps the most vigorous opposition came from the Smithsonian’s Sturtevant, who in a November 6,1978, letter to Lamberg-Karlovsky put forth his objections with lucidity: “I continue to be shocked that the richest university in the country … should succumb to a crass market mentality. It is difficult to understand how there can be any justification for treating a fine museum’s catalogued holdings as though they were part of its financial capital, turning them into cash in order to pay for improvement… of the institution whose basic rationale is precisely the accumulation and preservation of these very objects.”

Over the next few months, the glare of adverse publicity was constant and fierce. Whether in response to this or not, on February 9,1979, LambergKarlovsky announced that “we will not sell anything out of the Bushnell Collection whatsoever for the foreseeable future,” and that the Inman Collection would be sold as a unit and only to a museum or comparable institution accessible to the public. For critics of decessioning, the decision was at least a partial victory, and was applauded —not only because it helped protect the integrity of the Bushnell and Inman collections, but, given the prestige and influence of the Peabody, because it might inspire others in the museum business to reflect on the possibility that, in spite of financial problems, it is better to receive and to keep than it is to give away.