What is Museum Quality?

What is Museum Quality?
Every time I hear something advertised as “museum quality” it makes me cringe! As a curator, I wonder, “What, exactly, do they mean by that?”

Surely the public is duped into thinking they are purchasing high-quality merchandise. But that isn’t always the case. Just because something is well made by modern machine techniques, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be in a museum in 100 years. That will be determined by other factors, such as how many were produced, how it holds up over time, and whether or not a museum’s mission will fit such a donation – among other factors.

In general, if someone is selling something that they say is “collectible,” it probably means that too many were produced to really make that purchase an investment. Truly collectible items are rare to some degree, and while they might have been mass produced at the time, only a fraction still survive.

Usually those things weren’t marketed as “collectible,” so they weren’t treated with any special care. Kids played with vintage toys, people ate off their Depression glass, and people wore their period clothing. They didn’t save it on purpose, the way people do today with things they think are “collectible.” Therefore, in the future, many more of those “museum quality” items you purchase today will survive into the future, making them less rare and not worth as much.

A good example is the Beanie Baby craze. Even though certain Beanie Babies did increase in value because of limited supply (deliberately created by the company), they were still mass-produced on too large of a scale to actually be worth anything significant in the future.

To me, “museum quality” means something is worthy to be added to a museum’s permanent collection. And there are basically two categories of museums: history and art.

Art museums look for the absolute finest example of a certain kind of art. They often have larger budgets than history museums that allow them to purchase rare pieces for their permanent collections. They often do not want artwork that is damaged in any way. When you go to an art museum, you expect a certain kind of experience. You want to see beautiful examples of someone’s artistic talent.

History museums look at things a bit differently, which is the kind of museum that I work for. We are preserving the everyday lives of people, and that means many of the things we take in aren’t prefect. They are used. Sometimes things are chipped, torn, or missing pieces. But their condition often tells a story in itself.

For example, in my museum we have a beautiful purple velvet dress from the 1870s. And it is missing all its buttons! When I have put it on exhibit, I share the fact that buttons were often seen as jewelry, and were “cannibalized” from one garment to another.

We also have a pewter teapot that has been patched on one side. To me, that means that teapot was so important to its owners, it was worth repairing. Perhaps it was a gift from someone special. Or maybe they didn’t have the extra money to purchase a new one when theirs broke. Whatever the reason, it is fun to speculate about what that teapot might have seen over its lifetime.

I recently exhibited part of our wedding dress collection, and I couldn’t resist putting out a royal blue taffeta hoop dress from the 1860s. Even though it was badly torn in the midsection, it represented a style that is quite rare in our collection because of its age. It was also a wonderful example of how brides didn’t always wear white.

Museum quality means something much different to a museum professional than it means to a voice on an infomercial. Before you purchase something that claims to be an “investment,” think about why that may or may not be true. If you love it, by all means – buy it!

But if you’re hoping to finance your retirement or send your kids to college with proceeds from it, please think again!

You Should Also Read:
Collecting the 20th Century
Making a Donation to a Museum
Museum Donations Are Tax Deductible

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