Tidying Up Our Collections

For many years, museum organizations like History Colorado have taken responsibility for holding artifacts in the public trust. Though the objects originate at various points in history, institutions such as ours hold them in trust for the people and places from which they came.

However, sometimes objects fall outside of our mission and have little Colorado significance or storytelling value. The process of reviewing and removing items from our collection is known as deaccessioning. A healthy and necessary practice, deaccessioning allows museums to better care for the collections that have stories to tell, to reduce duplicate items, and to better maintain safe environments for the collections that remain.

History Colorado deaccessions objects for a few reasons. An object might not fit our mission or collections plan. Items with unknown provenance or otherwise lacking in historical value or usefulness are also candidates for deaccession. Poor condition or duplication might also be reasons.

Deaccessioning plays a vital role in museum operations, resulting in more efficiency as well as better refined and focused collections. Going through a deaccessioning process allows History Colorado to complete targeted research on the collection, often increasing our knowledge about the objects we hold.

Our staff is currently in the midst of a survey and refinement project, with a focus on items found in the collection during the move out of our old museum building at 1300 Broadway in Denver. As the deaccession curator and deaccession registrar, we’re working with curators and collections staff to pull, research, review, and update these materials.

An example from this latest project involves duplicate sinks found in the collection with no identification or information except for the manufacturer’s mark on the back. The decision-making process involved searching the museum’s database as well as the physical documentation in the collection to try to reassociate the sinks with any original paperwork, tracking numbers, or stories. Additionally, we researched the manufacturer to gather information about when and where these sinks might have been made. Through this process, we found the sinks did not match any records in our collection; however, we did gather enough information about one of the sinks to keep it in the collection. It provides a great example of early sinks made by the Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company while also showing the evolution of plumbing in American houses.

The process of surveying and refining the collection gets most exciting when we find hidden gems. When History Colorado staff researches these items, they might find a long-forgotten piece that can help us better understand the way of life for people in this area anytime from prehistory to the present. The researched object might also turn out to be something thought missing for years. In finding an item and matching it to the original documents, it becomes usable again for researchers and has more potential to go on display for people’s enjoyment and education. 

carbide lamp
carbide lamp
carbide lamp

One such example is a “miner’s bicycle lamp,” or acetylene gas lamp, that was found in the collection. Portable acetylene gas lamps, worn on the hat or carried by hand, were widely used in mining in the early twentieth century. Miners used them to have better illumination underground as they worked their way into the mine from the portal; they inspired the idea of a miner’s cap lamp. Between the manufacturer’s mark and manufacture date on this particular object, database research yielded its correct name, and the combination of information reassociated the object with its accession number. This is a unique object in the collection, and now we have information to share about where the lamp came from, how it came to the museum, and how it would have been used—all of which radically improves its value for research and exhibitions.

The process of assessing deaccessions is not haphazard. History Colorado has set guidelines for this careful selection process, which involves gathering all the information known about the item and then making a recommendation. The information and recommendations are reviewed and approved by a Staff Collections Committee, reviewed and approved by the Board of Directors, and, overall, guided by state statute. Depending on the condition of the deaccessioned piece, it may be transferred to another educational institution, exchanged, destroyed, or sold at public auction. The proceeds are restricted and can only be used to obtain new collections items.

This kind of housekeeping may not immediately come to mind when you think about museum collections, but it can greatly enhance our information and resources, highlight those collections that need conservation care, and refine the collection through the deaccessioning of items too damaged to conserve or that no longer support History Colorado’s mission. Removing them from the collection leaves more storage space and conservation budget for those pieces that still have research and education potential. This rigorous research process results in a wealth of information and creates more robust access. All of these efforts add up to a better experience for researchers and visitors for years to come.