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Philadelphia Museum Sells Objects To Get A Face-Lift

The Philadelphia History Museum has been closed for two years, and when it reopens this spring, it will display thousands of objects -- everything from fine art to firearms. But more than 2,000 items from the museum's collection will be more notable for their absence.

That's because they were sold to help pay for the multimillion-dollar renovation of the museum's 19th century building, sparking a debate in the field of museum ethics.

Viki Sand, the museum's former director, says the renovation was essential to the museum's conservation abilities.

"It does no good to conserve an individual object if you put it back into the very environment that caused it to deteriorate in the first place," she says.

Sand says the museum lacked basics like adequate lighting and modern climate control systems. But that won't be an issue after its $6 million renovation.

"While the amount of money is not insignificant," she says, it "gives the museum the opportunity to -- in a new way for this city -- be a compelling city history museum."

But the museum's renovation isn't the issue. The issue is how it was financed. Over the past seven years, the Philadelphia History Museum -- formerly known as the Atwater Kent Museum -- quietly sold some 2,600 items from its collection. In the museum world, that's known as deaccessioning, and it's a loaded word.

Russell Lewis, chief historian at the Chicago History Museum, says his institution tries to avoid deaccessioning because of the message it can send to potential donors.

"It can be a slippery slope," he says. "Why wouldn't somebody say, 'Why should I give this to you? What guarantee do I have that you're not going to sell this tomorrow?' "

That's exactly why art museums have strict rules about what they can do with the proceeds from deaccessioning. The Association of Art Museum Directors says you can only use deaccessioning funds to acquire more art, but the American Association for State and Local History takes a more nuanced position. Terry Davis, that association's president, says, "As long as deaccessioning is done according to institutional policies that have been set ahead of time, for the long-term goal of taking care of collections, it's a perfectly fine practice to do."

That's exactly what the Philadelphia History Museum says it did. Sand, the former director, says the museum only sold items that fell outside of its mission and that they've been careful to use the proceeds -- nearly $3 million or half the cost of the renovation -- to care for the collection.

"We're not paying for paint. We're not paying for lights. We're not paying for development salaries," Sand says. "We're paying to create an environment where we can now exhibit the premier collection of Philadelphia material culture."

Still, other Philadelphia institutions are troubled. Page Talbott sits on the board of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which had donated many of the items the history museum deaccessioned.

"If there are local institutions that care about this patrimony, give them the chance to raise the money to purchase the objects," Talbott says. "Take the time to work within the community in a neighborly kind of way."

Talbott says that while the museum did make an effort to get the word out, "it could have been done better."

Local institutions are also unhappy about the museum's decision to sell a painting by Raphaelle Peale, son of Charles Willson Peale who founded the country's first art museum in Philadelphia in the 19th century.

Sand declines to comment about reports that the museum plans to raise an additional $1.5 million through the sale of a single object, but she says institutions did know what her museum was selling and failed to come forward to talk about making a deal

"We have tried in every way not to be secretive," Sand says. "You know, we haven't stood on a street corner and said, 'We're deaccessioning, we're deaccessioning.' But we have certainly not hidden it."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.