Do we need a deed of gift?

A deed of gift is a form signed by both the donor and the museum that conveys legal title of an object to the museum. It is an easy way for the museum to acquire documentation that it owns the object. If there is no deed of gift, the museum may still be able to demonstrate ownership by meeting three conditions: show intent to donate; provide proof of physical receipt of the property; present written acceptance of the gift by the museum. Rebecca A. Buck and Jane Gilmore, editors of The New Museum Registration Methods (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 1998),* discuss this latter point (163) and provide a sample deed of gift form that includes copyright and associated rights (160). As Buck and Gilmore point out, when there is no deed of gift and the documentation on hand does not support title, the museum might ask the donor to sign a “confirmation of gift” statement (156). Marie Malaro goes into detail about the difference between a deed of gift and a gift confirmation in her book A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections (2d ed., Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Press, 1998), 205.*

How much space is needed for collections storage? How much for exhibits?

When determining space allocation, some museums do not reserve much for storage. This means that most of the collection is on display. Not only does this shorten the life of the artifacts, but there are fewer objects in changing exhibits to attract return visitors. A handy formula that some museums use in allocating space is 40-40-20: 40% for exhibits; 40% for storage and related processes; and 20% for administrative and other uses (Carl E. Guthe, The Management of Small History Museums, 2d ed. [Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1964], 14).*

A discussion on the Museum-l listserv in January 2010 revealed that some museums had as much as 95% of their collections on exhibit and others as little as 1%. In general, small museums had more of their collections in exhibits. As the size of the collections increased, the percentage went down. The larger museums had very little on exhibit at any one time.

Do we need a collections plan?

The AAM Guide to Collections Planning (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 2004),* by James B. Gardner and Elizabeth E. Merritt, offers some suggestions about why museums would benefit from developing a collections plan. The authors point out that such a plan establishes intellectual control of a collection by addressing issues such as collecting goals and interpretive goals; new directions and legacy collections; current needs and future needs; passive collecting and planned collecting; and institutional goals and collective responsibilities.

A collections plan goes beyond a collections management policy. It does not merely help to build a collection. Rather, it shapes a collection, guiding the acquisition or disposal of objects and explaining why such choices are appropriate. Writing a collections plan involves defining its purpose and specifying what will be accomplished within a given period of time. The AAM Guide to Collections Planning suggests typical content, describes the planning process, and lists some of the potential barriers to planning. It includes sample sections from collections plans. Another helpful resource is IHA Technical Insert 132 (Nov.-Dec. 2004), “Grow Your Collections with a Plan,”* by Barbara Oehlschlaeger-Garvey.

This topic is being addressed by more and more museums. A collections plan is not currently needed for museum accreditation, but it may be required in the future.

Should a museum carry insurance on collections?

This question comes up regularly. It surfaced on the listserv of the American Association for State and Local History’s Small Museums Affinity Group (Dec. 20, 2011) when someone mentioned that her museum was planning to drop its insurance because the board felt the collection was irreplaceable. She didn’t say if the money being spent on insurance might be diverted to another use such as improved environmental care or security for the collection.

In her seminal publication A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections *(2d ed., Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Press, 1998), Marie Malaro has this to say about the obligation to insure collections: “If the objects are owned by the museum, an obligation to insure is not normally mandated as a requirement of care. Frequently museum collections are irreplaceable; therefore, prudent management may dictate that available funds be spent for the security and care of the objects rather than for insurance, which can only compensate for loss” (419).

Two thoughtful responses on the listserv offered other ideas:

“To the extent that the historical value of collections is linked to their specific associations with local makers, owners, users, places, and/or events, it’s absolutely true that no amount of insurance money can replace those items if they’re lost. It’s wise, nevertheless, to maintain enough insurance coverage to help pay for conservation of `irreplaceable’ items that might be damaged as a result of a natural disaster, vandalism, leaky pipes, etc., etc. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any arbitrary number that might be regarded as reasonable or adequate to cover the costs of such hypothetical damage” (Ron Kley, Alonzo Wood Homestead, Dec. 20, 2011).

“To build on Ron’s excellent answer, while it is true that it is impossible to replace the exact objects with the exact significance to the history of your community, no matter how much money you have, the question to ask is: in case of loss or damage to the collection, what would you want to do? Would you just close the museum? Or would you want to have funds to purchase other materials with a community attribution (should they be available), [or] similar attribution, so you can continue to tell your community’s story, albeit without the original objects, or even change the way you tell the community’s story with different types of exhibits or programming? You can set the amount of insurance coverage based not only on the value of the current collection, but also based on what it would cost to replace it with one of equal importance to your mission.

“The purpose of collections insurance is three-fold –
First, to allow you to repair a damaged object
Second, to allow you to replace a lost object
Third, to allow you to continue your mission” (Janice Klein, EightSixSix Consulting, Dec. 20, 2011).

Do we need everything?

A discussion on the American Association for State and Local History’s small museums listserv presented pros and cons about whether a museum should accept everything offered to it. The exchange was started by a post from Linda Norris encouraging readers to check out her blog, The Uncataloged Museum, for a post featuring the McLean County Museum of History’s work in evaluating and building its collection.

Some people in the listserv exchange asserted they had never turned anything down and never would; others stated that their aim was to work with potential donors to prevent the loss of historical artifacts; still others revealed that while they once believed that accepting everything was a great idea, this policy created true headaches later on.

Almost all museums have some items that don’t fit their mission. Some museums have found that taking such items has caused overcrowding and a diminished ability to manage, care for, research, and interpret their collections. Some wish they had been more selective along the way.

It is easier to take everything than to assign priorities and make hard decisions about collecting. But a museum is more than a holding station. Saving artifacts that reflect our history is an important step, but it is just the first step in helping people to understand how precious our historical records are. If you take so many artifacts that you can’t document or care for them, they will not be available for people to learn from in the future. And if a large portion of items in your collection are unrelated to your purpose, you have detoured from your reason for being.

A collection helps to support the museum’s mission and tell its story, and a museum is responsible for the care of items in that collection. It’s hard for a museum to meet these responsibilities if it has never turned down anything. Many mission statements are so broad that almost anything could be construed to fit within them. This is where a scope of collections document can help define the story and establish parameters for collecting. A museum that takes everything has no focus. It makes more sense to acquire items that are both relevant and significant. This requires thoughtfully evaluating and making choices.

AASLH’s StEPs program (Standards and Excellence Program for Historical Organizations) can help. Another useful resource offers criteria for judging significance of items in museum collections. It can be found on the website of the Collections Australia Network. This is an online tutorial about significance. It suggests ways to evaluate donations to determine if they contribute to the story you want to tell. The Australian example offers one way to assess what would help tell a particular story, so that items can be selected with purpose. This approach can lead to proactive collecting and to a collections plan.

A responsible museum has a defined purpose and a mission, and its activities support them. In particular, its collections should be acquired to support them. A helpful book by James B. Gardner and Elizabeth E. Merrit, The AAM Guide to Collection Planning,* outlines how a museum can shape and develop its collections. This is a far better approach than to spend precious resources on items that do not belong in your museum. It is not your responsibility to take everything. If you do this, you are neglecting your true responsibilities.

For more information see “Do You Need Every Single Thing?” on the Uncataloged Museum blog, and the small museums listserv discussion “Do You Need Everything?”

Should we allow tours of collections?

Getting to see behind the scenes in collections storage areas is a draw for museums. Some offer private tours to special donors or to classes. Some use them as a way to raise funds. Some museums feel such tours stimulate donations, but others question this. While it may be contended that collections storage tours offer opportunities to educate about stewardship and the cost of caring for collections, this may be offset by security concerns. Registrars and collections managers are split over the pros and cons of the practice of behind-the-scenes tours, and the topic was the focus of a lively discussion on the registrar’s listserv in early 2013. This list is open to all. The discussion formed the basis of an IHA technical insert, “Pros and Cons of Collections Storage Tours,” IHA Technical Insert 182 (Mar.-Apr. 2013), by Patricia L. Miller. The insert contains some tips on controlling tours, suggests developing a policy if tours are given, and proposes some alternatives to collections storage tours.

*IHA Circulating Library