When I went to graduate school for my Masterís degree in History Museum Studies, I donít remember talking about how to deal with donors.
It is a lot more complex than I thought it would be! And it is one of the toughest parts of my job.
I had no idea how to politely decline items that were not appropriate for my collection. No one ever told me that people might actually cry when they started talking about their donations. And I didnít realize some people would absolutely insist that their artifact be on display all the time.
Here are some of the things Iíve learned along the way that might benefit you when dealing with museum donors:
How to Say No
Itís not easy to turn someone down. It is important that you explain yourself thoroughly, so you donít hurt anyoneís feeling and potentially damage your reputation in the community.
Every museum has a Mission Statement that governs its scope of activities. This brief statement includes collections and exhibit policies, and how ideas are conveyed to the public through educational programming.
The Mission Statement of my museum is:
The Stark County Historical Society is dedicated to collecting and preserving the significant materials and records related to the history of Stark County and the presidential history of William McKinley. Through the Wm. McKinley Presidential Library & Museum, the Society serves as an educational center of history and science and offers interpretive exhibitions and educational programs for the local community and its expanding global audience.
The Mission Statement is a tool for you to use when deciding what items belong in your permanent collection. The museumís policies are there to guide you through some of these sticky situations. Use them to your advantage.
For example, when someone calls and offers me a collection of southwestern American Indian artifacts, I let them know that it is outside the scope of our collection. Then I try to offer an alternative institution that might be interested.
Many people arenít aware that museums have specific guidelines for collecting. So I often get inquiries about things I cannot accept. I find if you explain your Mission Statement to the potential donor, they will understand why you have to say no. They will be appreciative if you go the extra mile to find somewhere else they can call.
Most people who donate to a museum have a story to tell. It is your job to listen to what they have to say, and record any important information about the artifact(s) they are giving you. Believe me, sometimes the conversations can be long! But it is all part of the job.
When people get emotional, it can be very uncomfortable. The first time it happened to me, I didnít know what to say or do. Really they just want someone to listen to them, so you donít have to do anything.
Once a husband came in to donate his late wifeís wedding gown. Even though he had already decided that the museum was the best place for the gown, just talking about her brought back many emotions for him. I just listened to him, and told him that she would be proud to know that her gown was going to be part of a museumís collection.
Sometimes I remind the donor that they donít have to give me their artifact if theyíre not ready to part with it. Just knowing that I sympathize with their emotions can be very helpful.
Most museums have a policy of changing exhibitions, which means that we cannot commit to having an artifact on view at all times. In fact, only 10-15% of a museumís permanent collection is on exhibit at any given time.
When people express displeasure that an artifact is not going to be on display right away, I explain to them that the artifact will be part of a temporary exhibition when it is appropriate.
I also remind them that part of a museumís purpose is conservation, and it is not safe for an artifact to be repeatedly handled and exposed to light. Storage preserves many artifacts for future generations to enjoy, and that is important too.