When Great Museums Make Grave Mistakes: What We Can Learn From History’s Worst Deaccessioning Debacl

Paul Gaugin, Under the Pandanus (I Raro te Oviri) (1891). Courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art.

A new book points out that one museum traded three Monet masterpieces for a fake Hugo van der Goes painting.

Most affirmations of a “public trust” doctrine in the US context in the early 20th century interpreted it as a responsibility of museum directors and curators to actually cull and refine collections that is, to deaccession in order to seek out a kernel of abiding cultural value from the detritus of the present. Directors and curators, that is, are entrusted by the public with properly adjudicating what is deserving of canonicity, and jettisoning the residue that falls short.

For example, the New York Times lauded the new plan of the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo in 1938 to create a “Room for Contemporary Art” as a kind of test kitchen or incubator to confirm the capricious judgment of taste, just as the Luxembourg Museum provided a provisional home for Seurat, Van Gogh, and Degas before passing them over to the Louvre once their canonical ascension was confirmed. The Albright plan would be funded with a gift of $100,000 by the Knox family, and the director Gordon Washburn wrote of their manifesto:




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