Saturday, July 23, 2016

Some helpful tips if you're planning on donating something -- anything! -- to a museum

Tip Number One: Don't drop off a box of stuff, fail to fill out a detailed donation form, and then return 5 years later expecting someone at the museum to be prepared to give you back anything and everything that was in said container that "the museum didn't need."

But that's what happened today. A lady walked in, asked the volunteers working this afternoon about the items in question, and they called me. I am, after all, the person who plays with the database. In theory, I know where stuff is. But something that got dropped off at least a year before I began volunteering? And that apparently had no documentation?

Definitely a head*desk (or perhaps a head*wall) moment.

It turned out I did recall the box in question. It was sitting in the office when I first began volunteering in June 2012. It had a note on it saying that the historical society's military history expert had gone through it to see if there was anything war-related that the museum could use. The container was waiting for Karen, the museum's volunteer curator for everything else, to look it over. And then what? I don't know. Based on the lack of other instructions, the assumption would be to pitch (or give to St. Vincent de Paul) anything that didn't fit in with the museum's mission. Karen never did get to the box; eventually it became my duty to dig through it.

It turned out to be an interesting mix of stuff, some of which was total trash (old store receipts, for example) and some that was really neat. I sorted, cataloged, and filed. Some artifacts wound up incorporated into exhibits, some went into storage. Documents got sorted into several different categories -- a family history file, World War I, World War II, Boy Scouts, and some others -- and it all got recorded as having been donated by a specific family.

In any case, by the time I was done going through the box, everything that was in it was either something that the museum needed, however need may be defined, or so obviously worthless it went into the trash. There were a few things that had teetered on the line between keep or discard, but when in doubt I opted for keep. Of course, one reason for that clear dichotomy -- catalog or jettison -- was there was no indication I should do otherwise. The container came into the museum in 2011; I didn't start to get into it until at least two years later, possibly 3. There was nothing to indicate it was any different from the other boxes of miscellaneous weirdness we get, the stuff that's left over after the estate sale, the odds and ends a family can't manage to toss in a dumpster themselves so they drop it at the museum instead.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that anyone associated with the museum would have accepted a box full of stuff with the understanding that we were going to look through it, take out a few things, and then hand the rest back given how many boxes of unsorted stuff were already taking up space in the building. I am reasonably sure that if Karen had still been capable of scampering up the ladder to the attic that's where the box would have gone to gather dust indefinitely. I have a hunch that what happened is the lady came in, talked with our now-deceased past president, and the two of them managed to talk past each other. He thought she was giving the museum a no strings attached box of stuff; she thought he understood that at some point she'd be back to pick up whatever the museum didn't want. But we'll never know for sure -- Jim's been dead for over 3 years now.

Bottom line, people, is that you all need to do your sorting first, taking out anything that has any sentimental value for you, and then drop the leftovers at the local historical society. When you do drop it off, make sure you get a receipt, a document that spells out what rights (if any) you retain and what you're giving up. You can't count on people's memories. People die, they stop volunteering, they deal with enough people and donations that everything just blurs together. It was sheer luck that when the volunteer on duty at the museum called me I could actually recall a few details about the box in question. We now have approximately 4,000 artifacts in the database; if I'm pushed, I can remember specifics about maybe a few hundred of them. Or maybe a few dozen. Or maybe six or seven. And those are the ones I did most recently. If it went into the database a year or two ago, odds are that I've forgotten the thing exists. The whole point of the database is that we won't have to rely on people's memories; we can look stuff up.

Finally, if you're considering donating with strings attached, don't do it. Don't assume you can treat the local historical society museum like a storage unit, dropping off your family's tchotchkes for awhile and then coming back a few years later to pick them up because you've had an attack of nostalgia or a delayed inclination to hoard. If you're not willing to abide by the line on the donation form that says once the museum receives an item we can do whatever we want with it -- add it to the collections, put it in an exhibit, give it to another museum, sell it, or throw it away -- then don't donate at all.


  1. Pretty sure I don't have anything a museum would want. MY NEW BLOG..

  2. Personally, I believe everything i have ever owned is worthy of being in a museum. If I drop a box of my old stuff at your front door, I'll expect to see a new exhibit made promptly!


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