This is precisely what the New Jersey Historical Society has decided to do. They recently made $2.1 million on the sale of a rare 1784 map of the United States.
Is this unethical? Or is this a necessary step in helping an institution like the NJHS survive in this economic climate?
In this Newark Star-Ledger article, historians Stan Katz, Marc Mappen, and New Jersey Historical Society board president John Zinn weigh in. Here is a taste:
Zinn said the society must retire its debt in order to continue operating. But selling pieces of a permanent collection — or de-accessioning, in the parlance of the museum world — to pay for operations violates the ethics code of the American Association of Museums. A museum is permitted to de-accession only to provide funds for the acquisition of other items or for the direct care of collections, according to that accrediting body.
“Selling off the collection to help you escape from budgetary problems is a no-no, a bad practice,” Katz said. “You could argue about tableware, about china. But the map is clearly relevant to their collections.”
Zinn believes the association’s code may be the standard for art museums and that a historical institution like the New Jersey Historical Society is subject to a different, and less stringent, standard. He also adds that the map has only a “limited connection” to New Jersey.
But the American Association for State and Local History, an organization that works with historical museums like NJHS, has an even more narrow interpretation. “Collections shall not be disposed of in order to provide financial support for institutional operations,” it states.
Zinn, however, said the items being sold do not support the historical society’s new focus on research and educational programs. He said the Buell map is not archival but “Americana.”
“We are not selling any manuscripts or archive items, letters, diaries, papers things of that nature. Everything like that is intact,” he said.
“The end result is to stabilize the organization.”
The historical society has been hurt by recent state budget cuts. It received $290,900 and $293,310 in state funds last year and 2009, but it received no grant for this fiscal year.