While museum professionals always appreciate the generosity of their donors, not every potential donation is appropriate for a museum’s collection. If you don’t want something, it can be tricky to explain a rejection to your donor.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when handling this potentially sticky situation:
1. Always be friendly and kind, no matter what. People can take “bad news” when it is delivered in a respectful, professional manner. Never be critical, short or rude to the donor. They have taken a risk in offering you their precious treasure, and they probably don’t understand the limited resources you are working with to get your job done. Tell them you appreciate their willingness to give you their [fill in the blank], and explain why you cannot accept it. End your conversation by asking them to feel free to call you again if they have something else they would like you to consider in the future.
2. Refer to your museum’s mission. Every museum should have a Mission Statement that explains what the museum is for and what kind of items it collects. If you are a historical society in New England whose Mission Statement is to document, preserve and collect artifacts relating to your small town, then a donation of Native American artifacts from the southwestern United States is not relevant to your mission.
3. Suggest alternatives. If you know of another appropriate organization that would like to have the items proposed for donation, let the donor know. However, if the item has deteriorated beyond repair or is not “museum quality,” don’t pass it off to your colleagues.
4. Refer to your collections policy, which should outline the areas where you are building the collection. If you are focusing on the mid-20th century or a filling a gap in a specific collection, explain how that fits into your overall mission. A collections policy is a guide for future collecting. If you don’t have one, consider forming a committee to draft one. It will help you assess your current collections and address any needs you have moving forward.
5. Be honest, but tactful. If you already have too many pianos for your limited storage space, explain that to the donor. People are more likely to accept a rejection if you are sincere and specific about why you cannot add it to your permanent collection.
6. Don’t be afraid to say no! It can be very difficult to reject an artifact when someone has gone through the trouble of bringing it in or calling you about it. No one likes to be rejected. But ultimately, you are responsible for allocating your museum’s resources wisely, and for collecting within the mission of your institution. You have to be selective about what you take into the collection to avoid wasting valuable time, materials, and space.
7. If a situation escalates beyond what you are comfortable handling, ask the donor if they would like to speak to your Director. Sometimes people want to go “over your head” to get the answer they want, but hearing the same thing from another staff member may help them understand why their item is being rejected.