2019 was a difficult year for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. In April, HSP laid off thirty percent of its staff in an effort to reduce operating costs. Then, an attempted partnership with Drexel University fell through. More recently, the historical society turned to deaccessioning part of its collection to try to raise necessary funds.
According to a Philadelphia Inquirer article, last November HSP sold 1,102 medals that were a part of the Baker Collection. This collection was donated to the historical society in 1897 by William Spohn Baker, a collector and authority on George Washington. Baker’s will dictated that all the items in his donation be kept together and remain at the historical society.
A petition filed with the Philadelphia Orphans Court regarding the sale of the Baker medals suggests that HSP contacted four other historical institutions about the medals before opening the sale to the public. Other institutions turned down the acquisitions, not because they did not think the medals were significant, but rather for financial reasons. Two of the listed institutions told the Inquirer that they were not aware of an offer to buy the medals.
In a letter published in response to the Inquirer article, HSP defended the sale of the medals as part of standard museum practice. According to the letter, the historical society changed its institutional mission twenty five years ago to function as a research library and arranged to transfer its three-dimensional objects to the Philadelphia History Museum. The medals, along with other recent deaccessions, were sold because “these three-dimensional objects no longer fall within the society’s principal mission.” This culling of the collection has allowed HSP to establish one of the country’s most premier library and manuscript collections.
The story of the Baker medals highlights how deaccessioning can be a difficult and emotional institute for museums. While it may make sense for the museum, in terms of both finances and operations, to refocus its collection, the public may view such sales as a betrayal of their trust in the institution as caretaker of our collective memory. HSP’s decision to cull three-dimension objects from its collection also raises questions about the role of material culture in historical research. If research institutions focus exclusively on manuscripts and text, what aspects of the past are we losing in our historical understanding? Ultimately, these more theoretical questions have to be balanced against the practical considerations of operating a historical institution.