In 2012, London Transport Museum made the potentially controversial decision to sell over 300 posters from its collection at a major Christie’s auction, ‘Posters with a Purpose’.
Anna Renton, Senior Curator at the Museum, tells the story of how the decision to sell was reached, the ethics of selling such a collection and the resulting public benefit of responsible disposal.
A world-leading poster collection
London Transport Museum (LTM) manages a collection of over 350,000 accessioned items on behalf of Transport for London (TfL), the modern day successor of London Transport. This poster collection is one of the world’s finest collections of twentieth century British graphic art, containing works by world-renowned artists and designers, such as Man Ray, Edward Bawden, Graham Sutherland and Edward McKnight Kauffer. From 1908, London Underground preserved representative samples from the original print run of all promotional posters produced by the company. Since its formation in 1980, LTM has continued to actively collect copies of all posters produced by TfL and its precursor companies. The entire collection has been designated as being of national and international importance. It is owned by TfL and is cared for on their behalf by LTM.
Totalling over 40,000 posters, there are about 7,000 different designs, and this large collection is stored in plan chests at LTM’s purpose-built collections store – London Transport Museum Depot – in West London. The collection continues to grow through our collecting of contemporary and historic material, leading to some pressure on storage space, and simultaneously, the rising commercial value of historic posters at auction had begun to limit collecting in some instances.
The decision to sell
A complete in-store location audit of the poster collection was completed in early 2011. The audit revealed that LTM often had several more than the three accessioned copies of most poster designs retained as a matter of policy. In many cases the number of unaccessioned duplicate copies was as high as seven or nine, and occasionally into double figures. As the posters were lithographically printed, the copies are exact replicas and all in very good, unused, condition. In consultation with colleagues at the National Railway Museum (who hold a similar collection) and the London Transport Museum’s Collections Development Group, it was recommended that three accessioned copies of each poster should be retained as a minimum: one copy for display, one for loan and one for research. In most cases, three to four copies of the poster are accessioned as part of the museum’s collection, with the remaining copies designated as unaccessioned duplicates, that is, items held by the Museum on behalf of TfL but not part of the collection. The provenance for each of these posters was exactly the same, as they were donated directly to the museum from TfL and its predecessor companies. As no individual historic donors required contacting, the Museum requested permission from TfL to explore the possibility of disposing of a small percentage of these unaccessioned spare posters through a sale.
Following this review, we proposed a disposal programme of a small percentage of these unaccessioned posters. This programme would increase public benefit in three ways. Firstly, the proposal consisted of a commercial sale by auction of 300 unnaccessioned posters which would generate a ‘ring-fenced’ collections fund designated solely for collections benefit such as conservation, restoration and acquisition. Secondly, the proposal also included a dispersal of 50 unaccessioned duplicates to other Accredited museums to increase the enjoyment of and public access to these works. Thirdly, the disposal of 350 posters would create between seven and ten years’ worth of storage space for the expanding poster collection. LTM approached the Museums Association Ethics Committee with this disposal proposal for their opinion and guidance.
The UK Museums Association’s ethics committee acts as ‘a sounding board and critical friend to promote good ethical practice in the museum community’.1 They have published guidelines on disposal and also a ‘disposal toolkit’, a practical guide for museums seeking to dispose of collections items.2 The toolkit draws on the Museums Association Code of Ethics, which stipulates that: ‘There is a strong presumption in favour of the retention of items within the public domain’ but that ‘responsible, curatorially-motivated disposal takes place as part of a museum’s long-term collections policy, in order to increase public benefit derived from museum collections.’3 The Ethics Committee advises on a case by case basis, using this Code as a basis for that advice, and LTM, as an institutional member of the Museums Association, has signed up to this Code.
LTM advised the Ethics Committee of the status of the items intended for sale. We explained that the posters were unaccessioned duplicate copies, with the same provenance as those accessioned into the collection. Advice from this committee was invaluable in shaping the disposal, enabling the museum to proceed with confidence.
At LTM we knew that the Ethics Committee would scrutinise the sale proposal to ensure that this would be ethically sound. Head Curator at the time, David Bownes had ensured that the proposal clearly explained the status of the objects and the plans for the resulting funds from the sale. The Museum had already proposed to ‘ring-fence’ the money raised from the sale to be used for acquisition and for the completion of restoration projects. This is recommended in the Code of Ethics, which states that any money raised from the sale of objects should be ‘restricted to the long-term sustainability, use and development of the collection’.4 The sale of the posters offered an opportunity to create a legacy. David Bownes explained that:
Creating a ‘fighting fund’ to purchase new acquisitions is increasingly important at a time when prices for important historic transport artefacts continue to defy economic trends, while traditional sources of funding are drying up.
The Ethics Committee agreed with the proposed increase in public benefit that would be a direct result of the sale. The committee also gave advice on how this sale should be communicated to the public to ensure that public trust in museums is not negatively affected by the disposal of objects by sale.
Managing the message
In the press release for the sale, LTM’S Director, Sam Mullins, emphasised the preparatory work with the Museums Association, and clarified the ‘ring-fenced’ nature of the proceeds from the sale:
Having worked very closely with the Museums Association and TfL over many months to ensure that the LTM sale meets professional standards regarding the ethical disposal of collection items, we are excited to finally be able to announce this unrivalled opportunity for the public to purchase works from…this carefully curated portion [which] will help to sustain and care for the core collection for future generations.
David Bownes explained that:
Once a museum has made the decision to sell on the open market it has an ethical responsibility to obtain the maximum financial return for the items being disposed of, and great care should be taken to ensure this. For this reason, LTM positioned the sale with the world famous Christie’s salerooms which has an internation.
Preparatory work with Christie’s began several years before the sale. In recognition of the once-in-a-lifetime nature of this sale, Christie’s undertook to sell the posters in a single auction, which they marketed as a major, unique event, creating a beautiful catalogue and merchandise and having a selection of the posters on public display during the London 2012 Olympic period. The sale was marketed carefully, with a foreword in the sale catalogue by David Bownes setting out the reasons for disposal, the consultation which had taken place, and an outline of how the money would be spent. The auctioneer reminded buyers at the beginning of the sale that proceeds would be going into a special collections fund. All of this helped to create a sensational auction day with prices fetching several times the estimates.
Nicolette Tomkinson, Director at Christie’s commented:
Christie’s is privileged to have been entrusted with the London Transport Museum sale of duplicates, featuring some of the most recognizable and sought-after designs in the history of vintage posters, in pristine condition.
Access to art project
Alongside the sale, we wanted to disperse 50 posters to other museums, increasing public access to these spare collections items. The museum is a long-established practitioner of community participation and engagement, and increased participation was included as part of the dispersal programme.
A Community Curator managed the dispersal process in conjunction with a programme of engagement in partnership with recipient museums. The curator began by contacting museums whose collecting policy suggested that they would benefit from accessioning a London Transport poster. Museums willing to work in partnership on community projects were prioritised. In documentation sent to the museums, the case for disposal was set out:
The Museum is mindful both of the high commercial value of individual posters and the resulting inability of many smaller museums to buy copies relevant to their own collecting policies.5
Some of the museums receiving LTM posters participated in creative projects, which resulted in a display at LTM. The projects worked with a variety of audiences and included the following:
- A carer’s group created a soundscape to accompany a poster for Kew Gardens
An ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) group of parents and children worked with an illustrator to create their own posters and visited Wimbledon Windmill Museum
MA Character Animation students from Central Saint Martin’s College, University of the Arts (CSM) created animated versions of the posters that had been dispersed to the CSM museum collection
The result was a rich dispersal programme with creative outputs and benefits. Many of the creative responses have now been accessioned into the museum’s collection.
The sale generated £800,000 excluding the Buyer’s Premium. A Restricted Fund for this money has been created that will provide an annual return that can be spent on acquisitions. The large sum itself is kept in these reserves for spending on major acquisitions or restoration projects in the future. The Museum’s Collections Development Group will have the responsibility for proposing acquisition and restoration projects, whilst the Museum’s Board of Trustees will decide on how best to apply the fund. In addition to creating this beneficial collections fund, LTM has also developed some wonderful partnerships with the beneficiaries of the poster dispersal, including a continued creative partnership with Central Saint Martins, where many of the original poster artists trained and taught.
Our experience at LTM has shown us that through a dynamic approach to reviewing and developing a museum collection, it is possible to create increased public benefit through limited, carefully considered and ethically sound disposal and dispersal, enabling duplicate items to be enjoyed and appreciated by a much wider audience whilst simultaneously generating funds that will develop the collection in the future.
By Anna Renton, Senior Curator at London Transport Museum