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Car Dealerships That Call Themselves Museums

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

Car Dealerships That Call Themselves Museums

Bill Crittenden
October 1, 2014


There's a car "museum" near my home where much of their collection is actually up for sale online.

I've long held that this doesn't make it a museum per se, rather a very nice classic car dealership with a nine-dollar admission price. One I've never yet paid since, of course, I'm not in the market for a classic car yet.

It's a feeling I haven't been able to articulate well in the past, but thanks to some recent research and a little help from Wikipedia to explain it all concisely, I finally can explain why this "museum" isn't actually a museum.

What makes a collection of cars a museum? It's deeper than simply whether it's part of a for-profit business or as an independent nonprofit entity. After all, automakers run for themselves some really top quality museums. I've been to BMW's in the 1990's.

One major aspect of a museum has to do with preservation, and by this I'm referring to something more permanent than keeping the dust off of it until a buyer comes along.

Another is the goal of the museum. Running a profitable business isn't a disqualifying factor, but if profit is the only factor considered in its existence, then it's very easy for such an institution to stray off the definition of a museum.

I've been reading a lot recently about museum policies and the key policy differences beyond simple semantics seem to be in the proceeses of accession and deaccession. Chances are, for shorthand, if someone running a car "museum" doesn't understand these words, they're not really running a real museum.

But here's the technical details of the process:

Accessioning is the formal, legal process of accepting an object into a museum collection. Because accessioning an object carries an obligation to care for that object in perpetuity, it is a serious decision. While in the past many museums accepted objects with little deliberation, today most museums have accepted the need for formal accessioning procedures and practices. These are typically set out as part of a museum's Collections Management Policy or CMP.

Several issues must be considered in the decision to accept an object. Common issues include:

Is the object relevant to the museum's mission and its scope of collecting, as defined by its governing body?
Was the object lawfully acquired and if foreign in origin, imported in compliance with international law?
Does the owner of an object have legal title to the object and therefore the right to transfer it?
Are there any other parties with an interest in the object (e.g. heirs of a donor, descendant groups for cultural objects, etc.)?
Is the object encumbered by any legal obligations or constraints (e.g., natural history objects that require special permits)?
Would the object pose any threats or dangers to other objects or staff?
Does the museum have the resources to properly care for the object (e.g., appropriate storage space, adequate funding)
Is the object encumbered by any donor restrictions?

Answering these questions often required investigating an object's provenance, the history of an object from the time it was made.


(Source: Wikipedia)

Now, the parts about international import and cultural claims don't seem to apply to automobiles but the part about provenance certainly does. Was the car modified, is it a "clone," is it numbers-matching? I suppose the parts about claims to the object would translate into whether or not the vehicle has a clean title.

Long-term storage and maintenance costs most certainly should be considered, because a car purchased with the intention of a quick "turn-around" is another great indicator that the institution doing the transaction is not an actual museum.

Note that at no point is the primary driving factor in accession about the ability to turn a profit either in driving admissions or in potential resale price.

One major difference between dealership and museum has to do with whether or not the institution has any sort of mission statement or a policy with regards to what kind of vehicles and memorabilia it is interested in and what it will pass on, most notably a policy driven by education and preservation rather than turning a profit.

The National Corvette Museum is a great example of a focused collection with the purpose of preserving the history of the Chevrolet Corvette. A collection of random cars that was selected based on purchase price and potential sale price isn't a museum, it's a used car dealership with an admission fee, regardless of what they put on the sign.

Accession is one side of the chapter of history a vehicle takes on in the time it spends in a museum collection. The other:

Deaccessioning, the process of disposing, selling or trading objects from a museum collection, is not undertaken lightly in most museums. There are ethical issues to consider since many donors of objects typically expect the museum to care for them in perpetuity. Deaccessioning of an object in a collection may be appropriate if a museum has more than one example of that object and if the object is being transferred to another museum. It may also be appropriate if an object is badly deteriorated or threatening other objects.

The decision to deaccession includes two parts. These are making the decision to deaccession and deciding the method of disposal. Generally, first choice is to transfer an object to another use or division in a museum, such as deaccessioning a duplicate object from a permanent collection into a teaching collection. Second choice is to transfer the object to another institution, generally with local institutions having priority. The American Alliance of Museums and other regional associations often operate lists or boards to help facilitate such transfers. Last choice is sale on the open market. Open market sales are generally expected to take place at auction rather than through private sale, and are typically most common in art museums due to the high monetary value of art collections.

Many ethical guidelines for deaccessioning require that the funds generated by disposing of collection items be used only to increase or maintain the remaining collection. For example, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) Code of Ethics states that:

"Money or compensation received from the deaccessioning and disposal of objects and specimens from a museum collection should be used solely for the benefit of the collection and usually for acquisitions to that same collection".

In the United States, the guidelines on these matters are issued by the American Alliance of Museums.

The American Alliance of Museums Code of Ethics takes the position that "in no event shall they [deaccessioning proceeds] be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections".


(Source: Wikipedia)

The biggest takeaway in this is that the decision to deaccession a vehicle from a true museum would be made by the executives or directors and then a method of "disposal," most likely method of sale, determined.

The idea that a large portion of the collection is up "for sale" at any time or that the deaccession would be determined by the approach of a buyer rather than the museum's need within it's educational mission statement is the hallmark of a car dealership masquerading as a museum.

And the second major point of deaccession has to do with how the money is used. I understand that everyone who works at a museum needs a paycheck (file that as an expense under "care of collections") but if the purpose of deaccession is to make one or two people a shitload of money, chances are it is, again, a car dealership that charges you admission to see the merchandise.

And now you understand why I, owner of an internationally recognized online automotive library and all-around car nut, haven't been to a car museum just twenty-five minutes from my house. It's just the principle of the thing, the idea that someone can put a classic car dealership business indoors and charge admission does not make it a "museum," regardless of what they paint on the sign out front.

Thanks to When You Work at a Museum for both entertainment and enlightenment on the topic of museums



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