While deaccessioning can be a healthy part of collection housekeeping, rarely are works removed for difficult content—more often, they are recontextualized and reinterpreted. Art museums, unlike public spaces, are “in the business of studying the ways in which images and aesthetic objects can contain a whole range of ideologies, some of which serve nefarious purposes and some of which serve more noble purposes,” Piper said. “It comes down to an object-by-object basis—whether they give greater insight into the intention of those who made them.”
The National Portrait Gallery, for instance, has no plans to exile its portraits of figures with toxic histories, whether of the slave-owning Confederate general Robert E. Lee or any of the 10 U.S. presidents who owned slaves or supported slavery. “These figures’ stories are still part of our nation’s history and are important to preserve in national museums including the Portrait Gallery, which are places of education dedicated to providing historical and contemporary context,” said Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, the museum’s director of history, research, and scholarship and senior historian.
This context is typically provided through didactics, which might give a balanced perspective of a person’s accomplishments and noxious practices. A spokesperson for the museum, which is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, declined to share specific examples of effective contextualization but emphasized that the review process is constant and neverending.
“The National Portrait Gallery is not a hall of heroes,” Shaw added. “To include the stories of those who supported slavery and segregation demonstrates the ways that racism and choices to support the oppression of others can be enormously destructive and restrain the principles of freedom on which this nation was founded.”
(At least one city—Houston, Texas—is planning
to relocate a Confederate statue to a local museum; meanwhile, President Trump is attempting to create a sculpture park
to “American heroes.”)