What is Deaccessioning?

What is Deaccessioning? A DAM Specific Deaccessioning Definition Deaccessioning, now that is a technical term typically not used in a Digital Asset Management (DAM) environment.

Have you heard of the term “Deaccessioning” as it relates to the content in your Digital Asset Management system?  It is a term that is well-known to curators of museum collections. It describes the process of how a work of art is permanently removed from a museum.

Before we examine what “Deaccessioning” might mean to DAM users, let’s first put some context around the term and what it means in the traditional museum setting.

Over time, the deaccessioning process helps refine the identity of a museum by what it chooses to keep and display.

The deaccessioning process at a museum usually has many steps that would be defined in their policies and procedures.

Why a Museum Might Deaccession an Item

According to Wikipedia, some of the reasons an item may be deaccessioned include:

  • The work is no longer consistent with the mission or collecting goals of the museum.
  • The work is of poor quality and lacks value for exhibition or study purposes.
  • The physical condition of the work is so poor that restoration is not practicable or would compromise the work’s integrity or the artist’s intent. Works damaged beyond reasonable repair that are not of use for study or teaching purposes may be destroyed.
  • The museum is unable to care adequately for the work because of the work’s particular requirements for storage or display or its continuing need for special treatment for proper and long-term conservation.
  • The work is being sold as part of the museum’s effort to refine and improve its collections, in keeping with the collecting goals reviewed and approved by the museum’s Board of Trustees or governing body.
  • The authenticity or attribution of the work is determined to be false or fraudulent and the object lacks sufficient aesthetic merit or art historical importance to warrant retention.
  • The work is a duplicate that has no value as part of a series.
  • The work may have been stolen or illegally imported in violation of applicable laws of the jurisdiction in which the museum is located or the work may be subject to other legal claims, including but not limited to repatriation under NAGPRA (The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) and art found to have been plundered during WWII by the Nazis.

As a sidenote, my sister works for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and is very familiar with the last bullet point above, she has been involved in many repatriation efforts of Native American items held by the museum.

As you would expect, the methods of disposal for a museum are quite specific, and not without controversy.

How to Think About Deaccessioning Policy as it Relates to Digital Asset Management

Since your DAM system may be a “curated” collection of content we can think about managing content the same way a museum’s curator may manage their collections. The level of curation could be general, and applied before content even arrives in your DAM; think about receiving photos from a photographer or agency…someone has already reviewed that content and decided what they should share and therefore what you should see in your DAM system. As a DAM manager, you are also a curator, making judgements and rules as to what should stay in your DAM.  In some cases, that decision is made for you. For example, the rights to the content has expired. Do you keep it?

Many DAM users put an expiration on content…this expiry may be based on rights, or it may be simply that once an image has reached a certain age, you want to ensure users do not use it.  In some cases, a DAM may be configured to purge this type of content, or at the very least, hide it from non-privileged users.  This is a type for forced deaccessioning.

As a DAM manager, you may also be called upon to judge content as to whether users in the organization should see it at all (may be by user group). And if not, then what? Is the content deleted (deaccessioned) from the system?  Are there rules that should apply to removing content from a DAM?

In addition to the Museum deaccessioning rules cited above, I might suggest these additional rules for DAM content.

  • The work has poor metadata, rendering it useless to others (if you cannot find it, how do you know it is there). This could include information about identifying what is shown in the content, or even content ownership.
  • The content has expired (or the rights have run out). Is there any purpose to keeping expired content?
  • Does the content have supporting documentation (like consent forms) where required? If not, why keep it around (if you cannot use it, why keep it).

Every organization will want to have their own DAM Deaccessioning rules so that DAM managers, or curators, will have guidance over what to delete and when, and then, users will have more accurate expectations as to what to find in their DAM.

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