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Processing Artifact Donations


Have you ever donated an artifact to a museum? Did you wonder what happened to it after you dropped it off?

Here are the steps that each artifact must go through before it is considered part of the museumís permanent collection:

1. First, museums only accept items that fall within their Mission. It is always best to make an appointment with the Curator of the museum to discuss your donation first, rather than just showing up or dropping something off on a weekend when the professional staff is not available. You should always research the kinds of things the museum collects beforehand. You can either visit the museumís website or call the curator and ask.

2. When someone donates an artifact, it is usually paired with some kind of Temporary Custody Agreement, indicating that you left something at the museum for consideration as a donation. The donor signs this before leaving the item in the museumís care. Some museums actually assign a special temporary number to an artifact at this point. All donations must be approved by someone at the museum. That might be the Curator alone, or perhaps a Collections Committee or even a Board of Trustees must vote on it.

3. After a the donation has been approved, a Deed of Gift will be issued. This is the document that legally transfers ownership from the donor to the museum. The museum will usually send the donor two copies of the Deed of Gift: one to sign and return and one to keep for his/her records. Deeds of Gift are kept on file for each donation the museum receives, in perpetuity. Some museums will also issue a questionnaire to help the donor supply as much information about the piece as possible, such as where it was purchased and who used it.

4. Once the Deed of Gift is issued, the donation becomes associated with an accession number, consisting of three banks of numbers separated by a period. The numbers are assigned in the order the donation is made. For example, the 25th person to donate an artifact in the year 2008 would receive the accession number 2008.25. Each item within the donation is numbered in a third bank of consecutive numbers. So, if someone brought in a wedding dress, a pair of shoes, and an invitation, the numbering would look like this:

2008.25.1 Wedding dress
2008.25.2 Shoes
2008.25.3 Invitation

5. Next, the artifact must be cataloged. Today, most museums have eliminated paper records from the process, and cataloging is done directly into a computer database, such as PastPerfect. All details about the artifact are recorded, including a description, measurements, provenance, and any other relevant information.

6. Once cataloging is complete, the artifact must be permanently marked. For most artifacts, a layer of clear B-72 acryloid lacquer is applied, and the accession number is written over that in clear handwriting. For textiles, the number is written on a tag and sewn onto the fabric.

7. After it is numbered, the artifact is usually photographed. Any damage will be noted in a photograph, as well as other important details. For example, when cataloging a plate, the Curator will photograph the overall plate, the makerís mark on the back, a detail of the pattern, and a close-up of any chips or cracks. The photographs then need to be entered into the database.

8. Finally, the artifact is placed in storage with other things like it. Glassware, textiles, shoes, weapons, etc. will all be stored together. Sometimes the Curator will have to check the database to determine where an artifact should be stored. Only 10-15% of a museumís collection is out on exhibit at any given time. The rest is safely in storage, where it will be preserved for future exhibitions and research.

It takes approximately 15 minutes to complete this process for EACH ARTIFACT. If a museum is actively building its collection, it will consume most of a museum workerís time. In a large museum, the Registrar will take care of all the paperwork, and the Collections Manager will handle cataloging responsibilities. At a smaller museum, the Curator will handle all aspects of collections work.
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Content copyright © 2014 by Kim Kenney. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Kim Kenney. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Kim Kenney for details.

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