Some museums accept artifacts and artwork on “long term loan.” These loans have no specific ending and can be problematic for future staff. It is best not to accept ANYTHING, no matter how fabulous it is, on long term loan.
Museums are not storage facilities for other people’s property. Collections storage space is almost always at a premium. Precious shelf space should be devoted to caring for your collection, not an individual’s private property.
Most museums have an active short term loan program. It is appropriate to borrow artifacts from individuals and other institutions for a specific period of time for a specific reason.
Let’s say you are mounting an exhibition of 19th century pottery made in Massachusetts. Your collection contains some excellent examples, but you don’t have enough to create an entire exhibition. You know a private collector has some pieces that will complete your exhibition. It is perfectly acceptable for you to contact the collector and request to borrow the pottery. However, you must establish a beginning and ending date for your loan. Most curators will request to borrow an artifact 1 to 4 weeks before and after the exhibition’s opening and closing dates.
But what if the private collector says, “Oh sure, you can have that piece! But I don’t want to donate it. I want to place it on long term loan.” Thank them for their willingness to contribute to your exhibition, but explain that it is your policy not to accept long-term loans. If you’ve used it in a temporary exhibition, presumably there is not an appropriate spot for you to exhibit it in your permanent exhibitions.
Between processing acquisitions and creating exhibitions, curators deal with hundreds or even thousands of artifacts per year. When an exhibition closes, all loaned items are generally returned within a month of the closing date. Then you can close your file on that exhibition.
With a long term loan, your file stays open indefinitely. And this can cause a problem when staff changes in the future, or when heirs come back and demand the return of a prominent artifact in your permanent exhibition because it was on “long term loan.”
What if you accepted a long term loan back in 1965? The original owner is now dead, and there are 10 grandchildren, each claiming the property should be returned to them. What do you do then?
All of the artifacts in your museum should rightfully belong to you. Every single object should have a signed Deed of Gift, legally transferring ownership of the property from the individual to the museum. If everything is treated equally, there can be no misunderstandings in the future.