Save the Cooper Union Museum : a case study in deaccesioning

Two New York state bills are causing quite the controversy in the museum, library, and archival world. The two bills, AO6959 and SO4584, attempt to regulate the practice of removing materials from a collection, otherwise known as deaccesioning, for monetary gain.

The Association of American Museum’s “Code of Ethics for Museums” includes language that allows for this process as long as the deaccessioning is in line with the institution’s mission. Furthermore, it directly states that all monies retrieved from the process should “be used consistent with the established standards of the museum’s discipline, but in no event shall they be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.”

These two bills effectively give a legal and binding mandate to collecting institutions to do exactly that: collect, list, and report items that fall strictly under the purview of their mission, that any deaccesioning that does occur should be publicly made, and that all proceeds go back to acquisitions or preservation of collections–not to covering operating expenses.

The New York Times reports that many cultural institutions are attempting to stop these two bills from moving forward. According to the article, Richard Armstrong, Director of the Guggenheim, wrote to the sponsoring senator that the bill would stifle “intellectual freedom and differences of taste and opinion.”

The bill was a reaction to major deaccessions that were proposed or occured in the past year, including Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum.

In another New York Times article “Why University Museums Matter,” Holland Cotter urges the Rose Art Museum to cease and desist their plans on selling their art works to raise funds in this gloomy economy. Notes Cotter:

If it helps, consider your museum and its collection in purely materialistic terms, as a big chunk of capital, slowly and fortuitously accumulated. Once spent, it is irrecoverable. Your university can never be that rich in that way again. Or view the art in your care as something that doesn’t belong to you. Like any legacy it belongs to the future.

A case study in the importance of a university museum collection is found in the plight to save the Cooper Union Museum in 1963. Meyer Schapiro was an adamant supporter to save the museum and his archive houses records detailing these rescue efforts.

Founded in 1897 by the granddaughters of Peter Cooper, the Cooper Union Museum was to promote the industrial arts and based on models by leading French museums at the time. The New York Times heralded the opening of the museum as important and significant. The article would also add:

As will be remembered, this opening came almost as a surprise, not only to New York society, but to the art world of the city, for it had not been generally known that the Misses Hewitt, the daughters of ex-Mayor Hewitt and the granddaughters of Peter Cooper, had been industriously laboring for three years to give to New York a practical museum of the very best models of decorative work known to and in the civilized world.

The museum was effectively part of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, now better known with the shortened name, The Cooper Union.

In 1963, the Trustees of the Cooper Union began discussions to abolish the museum, which, at that time, housed 100,000 objects that covered textiles, drawings, decorative arts, and prints. In 1963, Dr. Richard F. Humphrey, then President of the college, declared that the museum’s use by the college was “insignificant” and that the funds used for the upkeep of the museum could be used elsewhere.

Public outcry soon followed and The Committee to Save the Cooper Union Museum was formed.

Pledging the save the Cooper Union Museum, the committee, lead by Harry F. du Pont as Chairman, led a systematic publicity campaign to alert fellow New Yorkers of the museum’s potential demise. The Committee also submitted several alternative proposals for the museum’s continued operations, including having the museum become a “spin off” as a separate entity.

In support of the Cooper Museum, Meyer Schapiro wrote:

The collection at Cooper Union has an important function as a small museum in one of the culturally most active communities in the United States. With the growing tendency towards bigness and centralization which has created acute social and cultural problems, the maintenance of the local museum and the fuller use of its riches have become all the more necessary. The small museum is an ideal goal today, like the small school of institute of research. Even the Louvre, with its old tradition of royal and national greatness, has several branch museums in separate buildings at some distance from the center. Should the Cooper Union Museum become part of a larger museum for financial reasons, it is essential that it retain its integrity as a collection and remain in its present neighborhood close to the school. A city as big as New York…cannot be properly served by a few giant museums in one part of the town. The small museum, like the local or specialized library, is indispensable for the quality of life in a neighborhood…”

In November of 1963, the trustees of The Cooper Union accepted an offer by the American Association of Museums to appoint a committee of independent advisers to aid in the study of the future of the Cooper Union Museum.

In 1967, it became a branch of the Smithsonian Institution and is known today as the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Cotter’s stress that the legacy of a university’s collection will further its mission and provide unequivocal access of primary source material to students is worth underlining. The Cooper Museum’s fate, and its successful transition as a new institution with the Smithsonian, is a case in point in the importance of maintaining custody of collections. The ultimate question is: What if the trustees allowed for the deaccession of the Cooper Union Museum, effectively making it disappear as a unified collection and having its holdings disperse ?

Included in the archive is a letter from art historian Erwin Panofksy to Schapiro about saving The Cooper Union Museum. Panofsky would relate that “quite apart from the vitality and usefulness which this unique collection still has and will continue to have for students of art and art historians, it would be unforgivable to transplant or possibly to disperse one of the oldest collections of this kind which this country possesses. As we all know, the sense of history is a living force which sustains and strengthens the life of a nation and of a city as well as that of individuals. And every historical entity willfully destroyed does irremediable damage to the cultural well-being of all of us.”

Food for thought in these economic times.