MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The Philadelphia History Museum has been closed for two years for a multimillion-dollar renovation. When it reopens later this year, it will display thousands of objects, from fine arts to firearms.
But more than 2,000 items from the collection will be notably missing. The museum sold them to help pay for the renovation, and as Joel Rose reports, that has revived a debate about museum ethics.
JOEL ROSE: The Philadelphia History Museum is rich in artifacts. But its historic, 19th-century building had been falling apart for years.
Ms. VIKI SAND (Former Director, Philadelphia History Museum): It does no good to conserve an individual object if you put it back into the very environment that caused it to deteriorate in the first place.
ROSE: Former director Viki Sand says the museum lacked even the basics, like adequate lighting and modern climate-control systems. She says that will no longer be a problem after the Philadelphia History Museum's $6 million dollar renovation.
Ms. SAND: And so while the amount of money is not insignificant, clearly, it also gives the museum the opportunity to, in a new way for this city, be a compelling city history museum.
ROSE: What's brought the Philadelphia History Museum lots of attention isn't so much the renovation itself as how it was partly financed. Over the past seven years, what used to be called the Atwater Kent Museum quietly sold some 2,600 items from its collection. In the museum world, that's known as de-accessioning. And it's a very loaded word.
Mr. RUSSELL LEWIS (Chief Historian, Chicago History Museum): It can be a slippery slope. So I think you have to be extremely careful.
ROSE: Russell Lewis is chief historian at the Chicago History Museum. Lewis says his institution tries to avoid de-accessioning because of the message it can send to potential donors.
Mr. LEWIS: Why wouldn't somebody say, why should I give this to you? What guarantee do I have that you're not going to sell this tomorrow?
ROSE: This is why art museums have very strict rules about what they can do with the proceeds from de-accessioning. The Association of Art Museum Directors says you can only use those funds to acquire more art, period. But the American Association for State and Local History takes a more nuanced position. Terry Davis is its president.
Ms. TERRY DAVIS (President, American Association for State and Local History): As long as de-accessioning is done according to institutional policies that have been set ahead of time, for the long-term goal of taking care of collections, it's a perfectly fine practice to do.
ROSE: And that's exactly what the Philadelphia History Museum says it did. Former director Viki Sand says the museum only sold items that fell outside of its mission. And she insists it's been careful to use the proceeds nearly $3 million, or half the cost of the renovation to care for the collection.
Ms. SAND: We are not paying for paint. We're not paying for lights. We're not paying for development salaries. We're paying to create an environment where we can now exhibit the premier collection of Philadelphia material culture.
ROSE: But other Philadelphia institutions are still troubled. Page Talbott sits on the board of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which donated many of the de-accessioned items to the history museum in the first place.
Ms. PAGE TALBOTT (Board Member, Historical Society of Pennsylvania): Let's make sure that if there are local institutions that care about this patrimony, give them the chance to raise the money to purchase the objects, take the time to work within the community in a neighborly kind of way.
ROSE: And you're saying that was not done in this case?
Ms. TALBOTT: It could have been done better.
ROSE: Local institutions are also unhappy about the Philadelphia History Museum's decision to sell a painting by Raphaelle Peale, the son of Charles Wilson Peale, who founded the country's first art museum here in the 19th century.
But former director Viki Sand says other local institutions did know what her museum was selling and that no one came forward to talk about making a deal.
Ms. SAND: We have tried in every way not to be secretive. You know, we haven't stood on a street corner and said: We're de-accessioning, we're de-accessioning. But we have certainly not hidden it.
ROSE: But when I asked Sand about published reports that the Philadelphia History Museum plans to raise an additional one and half million dollars through the sale of a single object, she declined to comment.
For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.
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