Museums universally rely on the generosity of others to build their collections. Some museums have a budget for acquisitions, but many smaller museums do not. In these economic times, more museums than ever before are exclusively dependent on donations.
Every museum has a Mission Statement, which clearly defines the purpose of the organization, including what kinds of objects they collect and how they will interpret those objects through public programming and exhibitions. For example, the Mission Statement of the Anytown USA Museum might be to collect and interpret the history of the people of Anytown USA. That means they will only accept items that were made or used in Anytown.
It is important to find the right ďfitĒ for your historic treasures. If you have a collection of items relating to the California Gold Rush, it doesnít make much sense to contact your local historical society in Virginia to see if they want them. Chances are, they will not be interested in your Gold Rush artifacts, because they only collect Virginiaís history.
Some museums focus on a broad topic instead of a regional history approach, such as antique glass, maritime history, or pioneer life. Your local library should have a comprehensive directory that can help you locate the right museum for your collection.
When you approach a museum about a donation, remember that different people within the museum may handle different types of collections. At a very large museum, there will be several different curators who specialize in specific areas of the museumís collection, such as 19th century furniture, textiles, Japanese art, or photography. At a smaller museum the categories will be less specific.
Sometimes a Librarian or Archivist will handle all paper donations such as old postcards, letters, and books, while the Curator is responsible for the three dimensional object collection. Be sure you are talking to the appropriate person when you call about a donation.
Museum professionals usually prefer that you call ahead of time to discuss a possible donation. At the very least, you should make an appointment instead of simply dropping off your items. Behind-the-scenes at a museum can be quite busy, and even though you might have a wonderful object to donate, it may not be possible for the staff to drop what they are doing to talk to you.
The more information you can provide about your objects the better. Museums are interested in biographical information about the person who made or used the object, where it was purchased, how old it is, and what modifications or repairs have been made to it. Anything you can tell the museum about your donation will be helpful in documenting the objectís history.
Donít be discouraged if your donation is not accepted. Any museum professional should give you a clear reason why your items are not appropriate for their collection, and they should provide some suggestions of other institutions who might be interested.
Items are usually rejected for one of the following reasons:
* It does not fall within the scope of the museumís Mission
* The museum already has one or more of the same artifact (limited
storage space requires museums to avoid duplications in the collection)
* The items are in extremely poor condition
If a museum is interested in your objects, they will usually ask you to fill out a form listing what you brought in for consideration. All donations MUST have signed paperwork in order to become part of the museumís collection. You may choose to remain anonymous, but the museum still must have signed paperwork in order to prove that the item belongs to the museum, no matter how small the donation is. The official document that transfers ownership of the object(s) from you to the museum is called a Deed of Gift. All paperwork relating to a donation is filed in the collections records of the museum in perpetuity.
Once the Deed of Gift has been signed, donations cannot be returned to the donor. Please do not offer items for donation to any museum if you are not sure that you want to give up ownership of them. Most museums will not accept donations with any kind of restrictions from the donor. So donít assume that when your children are older they will be able to get the object back from the museum. A signed Deed of Gift is a legally binding document.
You are entitled to a tax deduction for the appraisal value of your donation. Museums are not permitted to appraise artifacts. You will receive a receipt for your donation, but you will be responsible for providing the IRS with an appraisal value.
If you have an artifact in your possession, please consider making a donation to a museum, where visitors can enjoy it for generations to come.