This week the Northwest Railway Museum gave a locomotive to another King County Museum, the Black Diamond Historical Society. For history museums, few things generate more controversy that deaccessioning (removing) things from the collection. So was this an act of treason, charity, or simply a case of making appropriate choices in managing a collection?
In the eyes of many museum professionals, a museum collection is dynamic. It changes over time to meet the needs of the institution’s mission and adopted policy, and is held in the public trust. And most importantly, a collection must be actively managed and should not be larger than the institution’s ability to care for it.
For many railway museums over collecting and collecting outside the adopted scope of collection have been serious impediments to success. Why? The objects are huge, occupy lots of space so each item requires significant resources to care for and manage. The Northwest Railway Museum has had prior experience in this arena and addressed these issues in the early 1990s. As a result the collection size was reduced from approximately 160 large objects each greater than 1 ton to about 75. Such a dramatic change in just a few years was difficult to do responsibly and certainly ruffled more than a few feathers, but it prevented the institution from going bankrupt and released resources to develop and implement long term plans and strategies.
The latest departure – a 1943-built Plymouth locomotive formerly owned by the US Army and then Western Steel Castings – was one result of a more recent Museum Board of Trustees-initiated examination that identified any large objects that were not in compliance with adopted policies. The findings did not mean that an object did not belong in a museum, just that it did not belong at the Northwest Railway Museum: the Plymouth locomotive is a classic example of a small industrial locomotive used in lumber mills, pulp and paper mills, coal mines and other industries to move freight cars and is worthy of preservation.
Unfortunately, finding another institution to assume responsibility for a large artifact such as a locomotive can take years. Happily, the Black Diamond Historical Society right here in King County was looking for a small locomotive to help them tell their local history. Snoqualmie’s Imhoff Crane made quick work of placing the 50,000 pound artifact on a truck and just a couple of hours later it was in front of the museum in Black Diamond. So the Museum’s position is that this act was an appropriate choice in managing a collection.