The financial value of museum objects

In the museum sector there’s a bit of unwillingness to discuss the financial value of objects. After all, museums are not run as salerooms and their focus is on the other sorts of value that collections hold.

Of course, for some artworks it can be hard to ignore the massive price tags that they sometimes carry and there are some good arguments that in our materialistic society, which has become increasingly focussed on economics, there are sound reasons for including financial value in considerations about collections. An interesting discussion about this between two NatSCA stalwarts, Jan Freedman and Mark Carnall, was recently published by the Museums Association.

Worth £175 million today. Card Players (5th version ca.1894-1895) by Paul Cezanne is the most expensive painting in the world. For now... (image from Musée d'Orsay)

Worth £175 million today. Card Players (5th version ca.1894-1895) by Paul Cezanne is the most expensive painting in the world. For now… (image from Musée d’Orsay)

For those of us who work in museums, we normally only consider a specimen’s price-tag when acquiring new material, deaccessioning material or dealing with insurance valuations for exhibitions and loans.

When acquiring specimens, the consideration is about whether an asking price is fair and an appropriate amount to spend in the context of institutional priorities and budget. When deaccessioning, the consideration is rather more complex and is linked to appropriate methods of disposal and the motivations for disposal. Deaccessioning shouldn’t be done in order to make money, but disposal by sale may be an option as long as the processes involved in the decision meet professional standards.

The controversial disposal by sale of the statue of Sekhemka has caused problems for Northampton Museum & Art Gallery. (Image of the statue on display c.1950s - uploaded by Bibilovski, 2012)

The controversial disposal by sale of the statue of Sekhemka has caused problems for Northampton Museum & Art Gallery. (Image of the statue on display c.1950s – uploaded by Bibilovski, 2012)

When assessing these sorts of values it can be very useful to look to private auctions for a guide, which take place every so often at a variety of auction houses. For natural history it can be worth checking Sotheby’sBonhams and Summers Place. However, auctions tend to deal with the more showy objects, rather than the scientific specimens that museum staff often have to deal with, especially for research loans.

Insurance valuations are slightly different, since these may not simply relate to the market value of an object, but could take into consideration the cost of conservation if the object is damaged, or the cost of going into the field to collect a similar specimen to replace it if it’s the sort of specimen that doesn’t come up for sale. Either of these possibilities may be far more expensive than a likely sale value.

One of the issues with putting a price on objects is that it may make them more obviously attractive to criminals. For instance, a sudden spike in the street value of illegal rhino horn in parts of Asia around 2009 led to a massive increase in the prices of antique rhino trophies at auction, until special measures were introduced to stop this loophole in trade. In addition it has led to the targeted thefts of hundreds of specimens from collections around the world.

Taxidermy rhino with the horn removed and sign explaining the problem of thefts from museum specimens. (Image by Dr John Hutchinson, 2013)

Taxidermy rhino with the horn removed and sign explaining the problem of thefts from museum specimens. (Image by Dr John Hutchinson, 2013)

Of course, by being aware of the changing value of specimens and therefore the changing risk of theft, museums are able to take steps to ensure that appropriate security measures are put in place to properly care for their objects. So although the financial value of objects can be complex to address, it is clear that there is a need for museums to know how much their collections are worth, since other people may be only too aware.

Looking to the future

As some of you may be aware, NatSCA is the Subject Specialist Network (SSN) for natural science collections.

That means we are recognised by organisations like Arts Council England (ACE) as supporting the understanding, development and care of collections across the UK and beyond.

At the moment NatSCA are undertaking several projects to consolidate our role and to improve advocacy for natural science collections. We want to establish better communications between ourselves and other SSNs in order to share expertise and improve collaborative frameworks within the museum sector. We are also addressing public perceptions of the natural sciences and developing plans for improving that perception.

By laying this groundwork, NatSCA hopes to safeguard natural science collections for the future, by demonstrating their relevance now.

ACE have been very supportive of our aims and we have received funding to appoint a consultant to help us achieve them. Please see below for a description of the post and details on how to apply.

If you would like to support our efforts yourself then why not contact the fantastic Maggie about becoming a member?

NatSCA Project Coordinator Post Advert

Subject Specialist Networking

NatSCA is the Subject Specialist Network (SSN) for natural science collections in the UK. This means that we provide a mechanism for communicating about advances in theory and practice in the sector, as well as supporting the development of staff – both specialists and those generalists with responsibilities for mixed collections.

In general SSNs are viewed a valuable resource and are seen as intrinsic to Arts Council England’s (ACE) plans for the museum sector – at least that’s what we were told by a representative of ACE at NatSCA’s recent 20th anniversary conference at the Yorkshire Museum.

The conference topic of ‘Policy and Practice’ focused on strategic issues and practical projects that have contributed towards policy and procedure formulation and testing. I won’t go into a blow-by-blow account of the meeting, which ranged from legislation affecting asbestos and radioactive materials in collections, to the practicalities of choosing and implementing a method for collection reviews and the benefits and pitfalls of disposal.

The meeting opened with a call for greater positive advocacy of natural science collections in a talk that can be summarised as “we need to stop bloody moaning and do something positive”. It was a well received sentiment, despite the fact that in some instances it can be hard to be positive.

The buzzing of the grapevine revealed dark deeds in a university (involving a skip and a departmental collection with notable specimens) and mounting clouds over the National Museum of Wales where cuts are looming, with the sciences bracing to take the brunt. Nevertheless, there was a remarkably positive feeling to the meeting as a whole and some healthy discussion arose that continued well into the early hours of the morning.

conference_meal

The NatSCA conference meal in York 2013. A lot of people and a lot of discussion!

One particular topic that saw a robust response was an NHM call for a national strategy for collections. After decades of the NHM focussing on their global placement the audience was
sceptical about the factors driving this change of focus. Rob Huxley from the NHM performed well on the spot and may have begun the slow work of winning over a surprisingly hostile crowd when he acknowledged that national museums often have lessons to learn from their smaller counterparts.

The full proceedings of the meeting will be published later this year in the new peer-reviewed Journal of Natural Science Collections. I would recommend taking a look if you want to find out how to non-destructively sample parchment for protein analysis, simplify your loan procedures or conduct a review of a quarter of a million objects in just one year.

This article is based on a piece originally written for the Museums Association website.

Natural Science Collections and the Law

The Manchester Museum – 8th February

Museum collections have a variety of legal issues surrounding them and natural science collections are no exception. A variety of laws are in place to protect wildlife and these can have an impact on how collections may be used. To find out how the law may affect you join us for our Natural Science Collections and the Law seminar taking place on 8th February 2013 at the Manchester Museum.

eggs

Timetable for the day:

10.00 Arrival/Coffee/Registration
10.30-11.30 ‘CITES and Museums: Perfect partners?‘  Nichola Burnett, UK CITES Scientific Authority (fauna), Joint Nature Conservation Committee
11.30-12.00 Q & A with Nichola
12.00 Lunch
12.45-1.30 ‘Legislation relating to possession of egg collections in museums‘ Douglas Russell, NHM
1.30-1.45 Q&A with Douglas
1.45 Coffee
2.00-3.00 ‘Licensing requirements for UK protected Wildlife‘ Nigel Shelton, Natural England
3.00-3.30 Q & A with Nigel
4.00 Close

The seminar costs £35 for members or £50 for non-members (so why not use the extra £15 to join?), which includes lunch and refreshments. The deadline for booking is 7th January so fill in the form today.

Hope to see you there!

NatSCA conference and AGM 2013

Natural Science Collections: Policy and Practice

28th February & 1st March 2013 – The Yorkshire Museum, York

The Yorkshire Museum, York, England. Designed by architect William Wilkins in a Greek Revival style and was officially opened in February 1830. By Kaly99

At this year’s NatSCA conference we will be looking at how collection policies, reviews and legislation influence current practice in curation and care of collections. We will also be addressing some of the ongoing wider issues affecting the sector, including a proposed strategy for safeguarding collections for the future.

As usual, the meeting will provide a fantastic opportunity for communicating with colleagues and finding out what’s going on in the sector – all at a very reasonable price (especially if you fork out the £15 for membership)!

Two day cost: NatSCA members £85 (non-member £100)

Early bird booking by 11th January  £75 (non-member £90)

One day cost: NatSCA members:  £50 (non-member £60)

Early bird booking by 11th January:  £40 (non-member £50)

Deadline for bookings is 8th February 2013

Booking form for the NatSCA 2013 conference [doc file]

List of nearby accommodation for NatSCA 2013 conference [pdf]

Programme of talks for NatSCA 2013 conference [pdf]