September 13, 2016
Have you ever wondered what happens to museum artifacts after they are damaged?
Well, best case scenario, artifacts are salvaged and mended by a trained conservator. Worst case scenario—they are deaccessioned from the collection.
Deaccessioning is a word that is not often heard outside of the museum community. Unlike accessioning—which is when new items are permanently added to a library, museum, or other collection—deaccessioning is the process of permanently removing an object from a collection.
In most cases, deaccessioning is only carried out if absolutely necessary—such as if the item is no longer relevant to the museum’s collection policy, the museum no longer has the capabilities to take care of that particular object, or if an emergency situation or natural disaster damages the object beyond repair.
The latter scenario is where the National Music Centre (NMC) found itself after the 2013 Calgary flood.
During the catastrophic floods that swept across southern Alberta, NMC’s prior home at the Customs House was hit hard thanks to its close proximity to Calgary’s two rivers.
Approximately 7000 sq ft. of NMC’s storage was submerged in almost 60 inches of water for days, resulting in severe damage to portions of NMC’s collection.
While thankfully the core of the musical instrument collection was not affected—several pianos, archives and electronics were damaged by the floodwater.
Sadly, a large number of historical pianos were damaged beyond repair—or, that is, damaged to the point where a full restoration with new parts would be needed in order for the instrument to function again.
At NMC, we try to restore instruments as conservatively as possible without compromising their historical integrity. Full restorations of instruments, with brand new parts, essentially renders the artifact a replica. Therefore, it was not feasible for the collections team to restore any of the flood-damaged pianos.
Thus began the process of deaccessioning the many damaged pianos:
- Step 1 of the deaccessioning process, NMC must offer the damaged objects to other public non-profit or cultural institutions in Alberta, at no cost. If no one takes the deaccessioned object after 21 days, then NMC must move to Step 2.
- Step 2 requires the institution to advertise and sell the object at a public auction, with all funds generated from the sale used to support and manage the collection. Since the objects in our situation were damaged beyond repair, NMC was forced to proceed straight to step 3—disposal.
- Step 3 of the deaccessioning process requires that any remaining unwanted or unsold objects must be dismantled or destroyed in the presence of witnesses. And destroyed in such a way that no one could retrieve and restore the objects for profit.
If you read step 3 with your jaw on the floor, you’re not alone. Disposing of cultural property is a pretty awful experience—however, there is a silver lining.
In order to make the disposal process not seem like a total loss, NMC was able to strip the damaged pianos of all usable parts. These parts will be used for years to come for repairs to our living instrument collection.
In addition to repair materials, many of the salvaged piano parts have also been given a new life as centre-pieces to local art installations around Calgary.
In 2014, NMC partnered with Stride Gallery to host Montreal-based visual artist Jonathan Villeneuve in a one-week residency. At the end of his residency, Villeneuve selected flood-damaged instruments to use in a kinetic installation, inspired by the flood and subsequent rescue of artifacts from NMC’s basement at the Customs House.
Another artist that drew inspiration from the flood-damaged collection material was Patrick Marold. A Colorado-based sculptor and visual artist, Marold’s concept was chosen out of 70 submissions from around the world for NMC’s public art piece. His installation, titled “Solar Drones”, is a sound sculpture that turns light into sound through solar panels mounted on the roof of Studio Bell. Over the course of the day, 16 resonant vessels sound at different times depending on the angle of the sun and the conditions of the sky.
The resonant vessels found in Marold’s sound sculpture were constructed from soundboards salvaged from deaccessioned pianos that were damaged in the flood.
Visually, the soundboards give the sculpture a lot of character, and serve as a beautiful connection to NMC’s past home at the Customs House—while at the same time breathing new life into lost and deaccessioned artifacts.
– Hayley Robb
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