Defining “Direct Care” for Museum Collections

By Tom Mayes posted 04-15-2016 15:52


For museums and historic sites that maintain collections, a key phrase of the American Alliance of Museum’s (AAM) Code of Ethics—“direct care”—has been without a definition for almost 25 years. The phrase is important: AAM’s code only permits proceeds from the de-accessioning and disposition of collection objects to be used for “acquisition or direct care of collections.” Any other use—such as for operating funds or facilities maintenance—constitutes a violation of the code that could result in loss of accreditation. Yet the phrase has never been formally defined, leaving museums and historic sites to rely on practices in the field and their best judgment to determine what is ethical.

 Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, NY used funds from deaccessioning for the care and conservation of the collections in its Art Gallery. | Credit: Jeffrey Sturges

Following a thoughtful, multiyear process, AAM has now provided additional guidance on direct care. On April 16, 2016, AAM released “Direct Care of Collections: Ethics, Guidelines and Recommendations,” a white paper that not only defines direct care for the first time but also provides guidance for understanding and using the phrase.

Prior to drafting the guidance, AAM surveyed the field to determine what museum professionals thought was and was not direct care. The responses indicated that, while a few uses were almost universally recognized as direct care across multiple disciplines, many more fell within grey areas. In addition to conducting the survey, AAM created the Direct Care Task Force, which was charged with making recommendations about the term’s meaning and use. The task force, admirably chaired by Sally Yerkovich, director of the Institute of Museum Ethics, included representatives from historic sites, house museums, natural history museums, botanical and zoological collections, and art museums. I was privileged to serve as a representative of the National Trust, and I was struck by the breadth and diversity of the museum field—literally from A (art museums) to Z (zoos)—as well as the willingness of the members to learn about the specific concerns of different disciplines and devise a definition that could apply across the field.

The white paper defines direct care as “an investment that enhances the life, usefulness, or quality of a museum’s collection.”​

Now that the hard work of researching and drafting is done, this deceptively simple definition may seem somewhat obvious. That’s good in my view  because it essentially adopts and ratifies the practices of responsible institutions across the many disciplines in the field.

But perhaps even more important than the definition itself is the guidance on how to use it.  Recognizing that institutions from many different disciplines need to apply the definition across a continuum of potential situations, AAM developed a helpful decision-making matrix. The Collections Committee of the National Trust has used an early version of the matrix, and as Carrie Villar, the John & Neville Bryan senior manager of museum collections, told me, “The matrix was very useful for our collections committee as we tried to make decisions regarding direct care—it allowed us to evaluate requests against standardized criteria to determine whether the proposed use of proceeds would be appropriate.”

While AAM did not issue the direct care guidance lightly, some types of museums do not permit their members to use proceeds for direct care at all. In particular, the Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD) ethical standards restrict the use of de-accessioning proceeds to acquisition of new collections. I recently spoke on a panel at the Legal Issues in Museum Administration course in Los Angeles with Lori Breslauer, general counsel of the Field Museum in Chicago, and Stephen J. Knerly, Jr. of the law firm Hahn Loeser, who has represented AAMD. In reviewing the ethical standards related to direct care, the panel noted the AAMD position but highlighted that there are differences in the museum field and that one standard may not necessarily be appropriate for both art museums and natural history collections or historic sites. As Katherine Malone-France, vice president of Historic Sites at the National Trust, said, “For many historic sites and house museums that have substantial conservation needs, use of proceeds for direct care may seem more responsible than acquiring new collections—and provides the same benefit to the public.”

AAM and the American Association for State and Local History are each planning sessions at their respective annual conferences to introduce the definition of direct care. Carrie Villar is also leading a panel at the AAM conference discussing the implementation of direct care at the National Trust. Undoubtedly, additional questions will arise as the new guidance is applied at museums throughout the country. The National Trust will continue to share our experience, and we hope others will attend these sessions to do the same. Expect to hear more after the AAM conference in May.

Tom Mayes is the deputy general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2013 Mayes was awarded the Rome Prize in Historic Preservation from the American Academy in Rome.

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