Many museums pride themselves on their collections. These collections are held in the public trust, meaning that although the museum may be the physical owner, they do so with the purpose of benefiting the public. Museums, therefore, always do their best to make sure these objects are cared for to the best of their abilities. For this reason, many museums have collections management policies that outline how they bring things into their collection (accession), remove things from the collection (deaccession), and care for the items. These policies are based on the mission and values of the museum, in addition to the ethics of the broader museum field.
A museum with limited resources (i.e., most of them) constantly questions potential additions whether through purchase or donation. They are asking if a specific item aligns with their mission – if the item helps tell the stories they are trying to preserve – if the item duplicates another already in the museum and also if the item can be cared for appropriately. Sometimes the museum is forced to answer “no” to one or many of these questions, which means they sometimes have to tell a donor “no thank you.” While it is difficult for any museum to turn away a potential addition to their collection, it is often necessary.
So, what to do when you want to donate an item and a museum tells you no? First, understand that the museum turning away the item for their collection does not downplay its importance to you or your family. Many cherished family heirlooms never end up in museum collections. I have many items passed down from family and I use them every day. They remind me of the people in my past and I will always cherish them, regardless of whether they fit into a museum’s collecting mission. You can also ask the museum why they had to say no. It might be that the item is not from the geographic location they are trying to interpret – even though you live in Indiana, the dress your mother wore to be married in Connecticut might not be of interest to an Indiana museum. The museum also might not have the resources to properly care for the item you offered. Some types of items require special storage conditions, like nitrate film that must be kept in special cold storage for preservation. Knowing why the museum said no can help you decide what to do next. You might offer the item to another museum (ask the first museum for suggestions), pass it along to someone else who can use it, or just take it home and continue to enjoy it for as long as possible.
Featured image: Kozma Bro’s. 1402 Hanna St., Fort Wayne, Indiana (IHS)