Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about dispersal and the Collections Review.

What is the scope of your Collections?

IWM’s collections cover all aspects of conflict involving Britain, its former Empire and the Commonwealth, from the First World War to the present. The collections illustrate and record all relevant aspects of modern war, and of the individual’s experience of war and wartime life, whether allied or enemy, service or civilian, military or political, social or cultural. They aim to embrace the causes, course and consequences of conflict.

A remarkable feature of our collections are their breadth. The collections include extensive holdings of art and objects. The archival holdings of written, audio and visual records are major specialist resources and support internal and external research which has world-wide audiences. The collections as a whole allow the presentation and interpretation of its subject matter in its full historical context. In addition to British and Commonwealth and former empire material, there are extensive holdings relating to allied and enemy forces. Because the subjects covered by our collections are so vast, we want to make sure that the collections are focused. To do this we need to be selective in what we collect. While we aim to have significant material relating to all subjects that we cover, we do not attempt to have complete collections of every type of material for these subjects. Therefore, we may have significant holdings relating to major historical events but less to represent the broader background to those events.

What does IWM mean by 'accession'?

Accession is a status afforded to those items (art, material culture and artefact collection items, archives of documents, film, video, photographs and sound records, rare books and special library collections) that we deem to be of such significance that they merit retention and preservation on behalf of the nation.

What does IWM mean by 'acquisition'?

Acquisition is the process of obtaining responsibility for an item, associated due diligence, rights management and transfer of title.

What does IWM mean by 'dispersal'?

‘Dispersal’ refers to the permanent removal of an item from the collections, which are owned by our Board of Trustees. Items can be dispersed of by the process of gift to other museums, sale, exchange, or planned destruction (in the case of an item too badly damaged or deteriorated to be of any use or on the grounds of health and safety).

What does IWM mean by ‘Accredited’?

The Museum Accreditation scheme is the UK industry standard for museums and galleries. It is run for museums and galleries of all sizes and types across the UK. A museum can achieve Accreditation by demonstrating they meet standards of collections care, engagement with the public, and appropriate governance.

What is the Collections Review Committee?

The Collections Development Committee (formerly the Collections Review Committee) meets monthly to consider the assessments made by curators. The Committee is formed of senior managers, collection managers, and specialists in exhibitions, learning and interpretation

Can you give me examples of the kind of items you are considering for disposal?

The items that our Board of Trustees have approved for dispersal have fallen into the following categories:

  • Duplicates that are not needed (we do keep some duplicates).
  • Items that do not meet our purpose and remit.
  • Poor examples of objects where we later acquired a much better example.
  • Objects in such poor condition that they are beyond conservation or would cost too much to repair
When will you make a decision on which objects are being dispersed of?

The decision to disperse of material from the collections will be taken by our Board of Trustees only after full consideration of the reason for dispersal. The first step is for our curators to review a particular part of the collection, which can take several months. After the review is complete they may recommend some objects for dispersal, based on their curatorial assessment. These recommendations then go to the Collections Development Committee. If the Committee approves them, each object would need to get all the necessary internal and external approvals before we are able to disperse of the object.

External experts are often asked for their advice. Following approval from the Board of Trustees, dispersal of accessioned material (other than duplicate material) requires the consent of the Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport or their designated authorities

Are you doing this to make money?

Dispersals are not about generating income. The majority of objects that are recommended for dispersal are less significant for our collections and/ or those beyond economic repair. Any money we receive from the dispersal of items is used for the benefit of our collections. This will normally mean the purchase of further acquisitions. In exceptional cases it may be used for improvements relating to the care of the collections.

Don’t you have a duty of care/legal obligation to retain all the items in your Collections?

When IWM was founded, the Imperial War Museum Act 1920 recognised that it might be appropriate for it to disperse of objects, as well as acquire additional ones and it is important that museums can manage their collections in this way. We have a long-term purpose and hold our collections in trust for society. We will therefore ensure that the significant material is retained. Sound curatorial reasons for dispersal must be established before consideration is given to the dispersal of any items our Collections. We abide by strict ethical principles, by the specific Imperial War Museum Acts (1920 and 1955) and the Museums and Galleries Act (1992), by museum sector guidance, and by UK law, particularly charity law. We will confirm that IWM is legally free to disperse of an item, and agreements on dispersal made with donors, depositors and transferors will be taken into account.