According to Nancy Fuller, research program manager at the Smithsonian, it’s a “highly competitive” selection process. Only one to four fellows are selected each year from the two or three dozen applications received from around the world.
“It’s wonderful that the Smithsonian has this program because most museum officials don’t get sabbaticals,” Lawson, who also is a 1981 graduate of Sweet Briar, said. “Having an opportunity like this – to put aside, for a little while, your administrative job and to be able to research and write – it’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to do that.”
For the next several months – more specifically, over the winter and spring breaks and around her regular duties at the College – Lawson will serve as a Fellow in Museum Practice and work on a book about deaccessioning controversies at U.S. museums.
Deaccessioning – defined by Webster’s as “to remove (a work of art) from a museum collection preparatory to selling it” – is a personal subject for Lawson. She was director of Randolph College’s Maier Museum of Art in 2007 during a much publicized deaccessioning controversy.
When done well, she said, “pruning a museum collection so that the collection as a whole can become better and stronger” can be a good thing. When done inappropriately or for the wrong reasons, she added, the results can be “tragic.”
Lawson envisions her book as an “anthology” about deaccessioning from many people’s perspectives. She hopes it will be used by museum professionals and museum studies programs at Sweet Briar and elsewhere.
“There’s a great deal of interest in the question of ethics, which is what this all comes down to,” she said.
The project was born out of Lawson’s belief that museums, along with the administrators, trustees and patrons who support them, need to “confront and comprehend the key importance of an institution’s permanent collection and to understand and honor the issues of public trust and public service that are the foundation of American museums.”
While she doesn’t doubt many museums are experiencing financial problems, she fears more and more organizations are considering deaccessioning as a fundraising tool, calling the practice “a slippery slope.”
As recent examples, Lawson cited the New York Public Library, Fisk University in Nashville, a Philadelphia medical school and the University of Iowa, which considered selling a Jackson Pollack painting in its collection to pay for repairs after flood damage.
“Recent deaccessioning crises … illuminate this issue starkly,” she said. “There is a real need for this sort of study, not only because of the recent crises but because the current economic struggles of non-profit organizations across the country make this – turning to a permanent collection for general funds, as if to a bank account – an urgent problem for museum workers and for museum supporters and advocates from all walks of life.”
Lawson said she takes her job as a museum director and the trust the public puts in museums very seriously, noting that museums receive tax benefits, grants and charitable donations, as well as donated works of art. “This is my profession and I care deeply about how it functions … and how it is viewed by the world,” she said. “I know that’s Pollyanna-ish, but that’s what I believe.”
On Dec. 15, Lawson and three other fellows will formally outline their projects for Smithsonian staff, museum professionals and current and former Smithsonian fellows. “If they’re interested they can have conversations with us,” she said. “The best thing about fellowships of this nature is the opportunity to be with other people in your discipline and talk with them and exchange opinions and ideas.”
Lawson also is co-author of “The Impermanent Collection: Lessons from an Academic Art Museum,” an article written with Laura Katzman, an art history professor at James Madison University. The article is schedule for release in the January-February 2009 issue of Museum, a journal published by the American Association of Museums.
She also will give a lecture, “Real Life Lessons,” on Feb. 25, 2009, at the College Art Association’s annual meeting in Los Angeles. Her talk will be part of a session titled, “New Thoughts on Teaching Museum Ethics.”
– By Suzanne Ramsey, SBC staff writer