Valuations and museum collections are a tricky topic. Following an article in Museums Journal, I thought I would put my thoughts all in one places on this. The article is a conversation between Dave O’Brien from the City University London, and Janet Ulph from the University of Leicester. I have the privilege of working with Janet and so get to discuss these interesting topics with her. I will try not be to biased to one side or the other in relation to the article, as both sides have good points.
Putting a value on objects within museums can be beneficial for a variety of reasons. Having an accurate valuation on objects which are being sent on loan to other museums can be useful for insurance purposes. The insurance valuation is also useful for general cover, loss due to damage or theft. (I will come back to the issue of theft later on…)
However, putting a value on objects could lead to a culture of collecting or deaccessioning based on monetary value. There is a case here for then beginning to collect based on value rather than interest, importance and cultural significance. Would museums begin to become graded based on the monetary value of their collection rather than the significance to the communities they represent? Would the government in their cost-cutting exercises use this information to decide whether a museum is worth funding or not?
Who values these objects anyway? As a museum trustee, I am presented with proposals to purchase objects on behalf of the museum. These objects often have a value attributed to them, specialist valuers are bought in to provide reports that should help us understand the value of an object. By putting these proposals in front of the board of trustees, we are also adding our opinion to the value of the object. As Dave says in the article-
“It is important to involve the public in valuation. Museums, particularly those in receipt of public funding, are public institutions and so should have a relationship with the various “publics” that they face.”
But we defer to the valuer in the long run. They are the ‘expert’ on the object and who are we to say that something may not be worth as much or more than they have allocated to it. We have a say in the object’s importance to the local community and its place in our collections. This does not affect the object’s overall monetary value in the long term. It does not increase in value because it has been placed in a museum as an excellent specimen. That had already been decided by the valuer.
Going back to the issue of valuations for insurance purposes… In my opinion, which I stress is an opinion, as I don’t have any proof and haven’t researched this topic; objects which are stolen from museums are all stolen to order. By putting a publicly published value onto museum collections, it could make this situation more common.
I think this is an on-going discussion. I may add to this at a later date.