Western Reserve Historical Society (Cleveland) Selling its Collections

The Cleveland Plain Dealer on the WRHS selling parts of its collections to pay off loans and to cover operating expenses. This is a deeply distressing article.

Western Reserve Historical Society sells its history to save institution | cleveland.com

This is a story about how the Western Reserve Historical Society, a beloved Cleveland institution, dreamed too big, lived too large, failed to understand the politics of Cleveland City Hall and marched recklessly to the brink of ruin.

It is a tale about desperate people who made a decision to save their institution by systematically and secretly selling off its treasures, the artifacts of Greater Cleveland’s history. Buyers eagerly have snapped up the society’s valuable cars, rare and historic guns, famous aircraft, furniture, religious vestments, historic money, photos, signatures and other artifacts, many donated by Cleveland’s forebears.

Like the New-York Historical Society of the 1970s-1980s, there were earlier mismanagement issues, with a poorly planned expansion, and wide-ranging collection (with no laser-like focus). Like NYHS, WRHS dealt with changing demographics, but Cleveland isn’t New York, so they had an aging supporter base without old rich manufacturers willing to support the organization. The endowment was used to support the expansion, and previous administrations used deaccessions to pay for that expansion and sometimes for new acquisitions.

There’s also a linked article of examples of items sold by the Society.

It’s possible that some of the hard decisions being made by the Society will result in a turnaround, but deaccessioning materials “in secret” is not in keeping with the spirit or letter of the AAM’s guidelines on deaccessioning. (Granted, deaccessioning is very commonly done quietly, but….)

Results: dispersed collections, damaged collection historical narrative of Cleveland, and damaged repute with the local elite, museums people, and donors (both past and future).

(h/t VG)

By Paul Romaine

Paul Romaine is a grant writer and independent curator in New York City.

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