What is deaccessioning?

What Happens When Items are Removed from History Nebraska’s Collections?


Removing items from a museum or historical organization’s collection is necessary for maintaining a strong, healthy, and relevant collection. This process is called deaccessioning. Keep reading to learn more about this process, why we might remove materials from History Nebraska’s collections, and what happens next.


Why Remove Something From the Collections?

There are several reasons why museums and historical organizations remove items from their collections. Some materials may be outside the scope or irrelevant to their mission. Why? Sometimes the mission of a museum shifts or narrows over time. Many museums collected broadly early in their early years, and accepted objects with little or no history that directly pertained to their missions. A chair from the 1890s with no additional provenance might have at one time served a purpose as a prop in a display, but it takes up valuable storage space and resources. Another object that tells multifaceted and compelling Nebraska stories beyond just being a chair would better serve our mission.

Sometimes items are removed from the collection because they are hazardous or in poor condition. Examples could include old medicines, pesticide containers, and celluloid combs that have disintegrated into dust. The historical significance of the object, however, is also weighed before deaccessioning.

Duplication is another reason that items are deaccessioned. How many spinning wheels or pianos does a museum need? How many copies of the same poster? Digital management of collections has made it much easier for museums to survey the thousands of items they care for, and weed out the duplicates that are lacking compelling histories.


Spinning Wheel

This spinning wheel was transferred to another Nebraska museum for their use collection.

Sometimes an item may be relevant, but it may be more relevant to another repository. Historical organizations should work together instead of being in direct competition or duplicating efforts.

History Nebraska often partners with other Nebraska organizations that can provide the same level or better care for collections. Archival materials that relate to the history of the University of Nebraska for example, might be deaccessioned and transferred to their archives. A researcher would likely go there first looking for University materials, so it better serves the public to consolidate those items. If History Nebraska needs an item for an article or exhibit, we can always reach out to the University if needed.

If an item has unethical or illegal provenance or must be removed to comply with national or state legislation, it also goes through the deaccessioning process. This would include materials that are repatriated through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

An item may also be deaccessioned if the historical evidence that led HN to accept an object has been proven false, it has been lost or stolen for five or more years, if History Nebraska is unable to preserve it properly, if it will be destroyed for the purpose of scientific study, or to comply with current State records retention schedules.


How are Deaccessions Approved?

Deaccession candidates are reviewed by curators and then presented to History Nebraska’s Collections Committee, which votes on all acquisitions and deaccessions. This committee includes staff from all curatorial areas as well as representatives from other History Nebraska departments. If approved by the Collections Committee, the recommendation proceeds to the History Nebraska Board of Trustees for approval.


What Happens after Items are Removed from the Collections?

History Nebraska’s deaccession policy allows for various disposal methods. One option is to transfer items that are in good condition to History Nebraska’s Education & Use collection. These materials are used for hands-on activities, teaching collections, and exhibit props where they may be used in tactile ways that allow visitors of all ages to directly engage with objects. In the former women’s suffrage exhibit, the period room space where visitors could sit and listen to suffrage songs was created with pieces from our Education & Use collection.


Period Room Space - Listen to Suffrage Songs


Another option for deaccessioned materials is to transfer them to another museum, library, archives or public institution. At History Nebraska, we start with other Nebraska institutions, unless the history of the object directly pertains to another state. We love working with other museums across the state! If we can help fill a gap in their collection, share something relevant to their mission, provide them with a prop for their historic house, or provide an object for their own teaching collection, we are happy to do so. Sharing with other museums often also enables collections to be accessible to new audiences in different parts of the state.

If no other historical institutions are interested and/or the intrinsic or monetary value is low, objects may be offered to local theater groups or charitable organizations. Public sale and auctions are other disposition methods that are permissible. In accordance with museum ethics guidelines, these must be a public sale, and proceeds can only be used for the acquisition of new collections, conservation, or preservation of collections. National organizations like the American Alliance of Museums and the American Association for State and Local History provide guidance for museums on many matters, including deaccessioning and how funds may be used. Our collections funds have been used to purchase significant objects for the collection such as an 1887 photo of the Fort Robinson Officer’s Quarters!

A final option is to destroy the materials. This is primarily done if something is hazardous or severely deteriorated, or all other options have been attempted.


Deaccessioned Chandelier - Wildwood Historic Center

A deaccessioned chandelier from History Nebraska’s collection is on display at the Wildwood Historic Center in Nebraska City.

Deaccessioning is a necessary part of a museum or historical organization’s collecting plan. It enables institutions to refine their collections, and use precious space and resources for materials that best serve their mission and the needs of their audiences. It enables artifacts that have little relevant history or are duplicate to serve new lives as education pieces, which allows museum audiences to learn about history in an engaging way. 

Deaccessioning also allows organizations to share collections with other museums, and transfer materials to more appropriate repositories and new audiences.

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About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
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