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Deaccessioning: History is given a new purpose

A treasure trove of history.

That is what some might call the collections storage at the Dubuque County Historical Society (DCHS). Each piece they preserve has a story and provenance, some more significant than others. Continually,  they collect and preserve history through inanimate objects, progressively making their collections stronger. To actively expand their collection, which tells the stories that embody Dubuque County and the Mississippi River, they need space. That space is running thin.

After many decades of collecting, the DCHS has found themselves at a moment where they must think about the future of their collection. To ensure a future of safely preserving artifacts that best help tell and share stories about local history and the Mississippi River, they turn to the process of deaccessioning.

“We recognize that history is made daily, and we need to prioritize the integrity of our current collection as well as create opportunities for preserving the stories of tomorrow. Deaccessioning is one tactic that helps us achieve this goal,” says Cristin Waterbury, Director of Curatorial Services.

Spearheading the effort is Brittany Boettcher, Collections Technician: Surveying and Deaccessioning, who picks up where previous work had been done and has yet to scratch the surface of this monumental task.

Deaccessioning is the process of evaluating a collection and carefully identifying select pieces for removal. For the DCHS this means pouring over 24,000 items and their individual significance in relation to the organization’s mission and criteria for collecting.

“This process enables us to refresh our collection, and the prospect of that is extremely exciting. Finding more suitable placements for some of these items is really for the betterment of our collection, and honestly, for the removed items,” Boettcher shares.

The criteria for DCHS’s deaccessioning cover many facets. Each point of the criteria provides a guide for this complex process, allowing for clear discernment.

  • Does this item pertain to the organization’s mission of preserving and documenting the area’s history?
  • Is there an identical piece of equal or better quality?
  • Do we have the means to store and care for the piece?
  • Is there deterioration beyond repair?
  • Is there suitable information associated with the piece to contribute to the collection and its interpretation?
  • Will there be a use for this piece in the future?

Sitting at her desk in the library archives, Boettcher scrolls through the online collections database, researching and evaluating items for potential deaccessioning.

Holding photos and descriptions, this database is key for the beginning stages of deaccessioning.

As the curatorial staff assesses each individual item, carefully noting its alignment with criteria, they unearth artifacts with stories that have gone silently unnoticed on shelves. The collection holds many portraits of unknown early Dubuque settlers. With the extra time and research deaccessioning has afforded the staff, they have been able to identify portraits of early Dubuque female settlers, bringing names to the faces, and furthering the stories of these pieces.

When materials are noted as not meeting criteria, Boettcher prepares an argument that supports deaccession. Approval for this argument and the progression of the process is determined by the Collections Committee comprised of DCHS employees, the President & CEO, and a minimum of three members of the Society’s Board of Directors.

If approved, the item continues through a multi-step process that includes; further research, a Board vote for removal, finalization of removal methods, and official deaccessioning. Until the final step, curators continue to care for all items.

Boettcher states, “The role of a collections technician is to provide meticulous care for every item in our collection - even if removal is anticipated. Deaccessioning an item can take months or even years, and we are prepared to provide the necessary care for whatever length of time it takes. ”

For DCHS there are three paths for removal. The most common is finding a suitable home for the deaccessioned piece. Searching diligently, the organization makes it a priority to contact local museums and other historical societies about specific items.

With a decision to be deaccessioned, a calliope that was once played up and down the river sat silently in storage for years. During this time the curatorial staff searched for a new, more fitting home for this artifact and at last it was relocated just 40 miles north of Dubuque to the Guttenberg Heritage Society.

Boettcher says, “With a working calliope already on our campus, this deaccessioned calliope would have likely remained behind closed doors. Now, the patrons of the Guttenberg Heritage Society have the opportunity to explore its history through sight and sound.”

There are two paths for deaccessioned items that the Society deems ‘last resort’ options - to sell or to dispose of items. If an item is sold, funds go directly to preserving the current and future collection. Termination or disposal, while the last resort, is determined if the item’s poor condition is beyond repair or is too hazardous for people or artifacts.

“Disposal is never a desirable option. Our main priority is to offer deaccessioned items to museum educators for teaching purposes, therefore, many of the items selected for deaccessioning are remain within our organization but with a renewed purpose. Along with helping to free up space, deaccessioning has provided our DCHS educators with items used as hands-on learning tools for various programs and camps,” Boettcher adds. 

DCHS staff know this is a monumental task, but they also know it will improve the quality of the collection. The newfound space created by deaccessioning will allow for expansion of the collection so that this treasure trove of history continues to tell and preserve stories of the people and culture of the Mississippi River valley and Dubuque County.

Posted by William Minnick at 8:43 AM