Museums have been disposing of objects since they began acquiring them. The first documented “deaccessioning” may have involved some of the decayed remains of a Dodo bird, destroyed at the order of a keeper of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in 1775. Fortunately, the individual assigned to the task chose to retain the Dodo’s head and a foot, which were in presentable condition. Without his disobedience, we would lack DNA evidence of the extinct creature that continues to be of use in contemporary research.
Art museums are places of particular interest for those who follow deaccessioning, because the affected works tend to be, like the last surviving Dodo, unique in at least some respects. Even multiples like etchings and engravings have subtle distinctions in quality and condition.
Disobedience in the act of deaccessioning today is as rampant as it was with regard to the 18th-century example of the Dodo—except that the untoward behavior of our time is not in service of preserving and protecting collections, but in service of monetizing them.
In 2007, the Indianapolis Museum of Art embarked on a considered campaign to undertake deaccessioning of those works among its 54,000 object collection that were considered insufficiently connected to the IMA’s mission. There were six possible rationales for deaccessioning articulated in the February 2008 revision of the Museum’s Collections Management policy (emphasis mine):