Museums: Donations

Let's talk about object donations.

image courtesy of

Of all the inquiries I manage, prospective donations easily top the list in terms of frequency. My hope with today's post is to give you a better sense of when and how to go about donating objects.

Let's start by revisiting our opening statement:

It belongs in a museum!

Okay, fair enough, but if it does, which one? Let's take a look at the criteria museums use when determining whether or not to accept a prospective donation:

  • Does it fit the mission? 
Every museum has a mission statement that basically explains why it exists. From a collections standpoints, it helps to establish a focus.

The Aston Collection of the American West.

The mission statement for RMAC, for example, is as follows: "The Roswell Museum and Art Center inspires discovery, creativity, and understanding of the art and history of the American Southwest and beyond." This means that we concentrate on objects made or used in the Southwest. "And beyond" gives us the leeway to connect to Southwest to the broader national culture, but for the most part, we focus on a specific region. If you have an old baseball mitt to donate then, RMAC probably isn't the place for it (try Cooperstown in New York).
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At the same time, our statement avoids linking itself exclusively to the history and culture of Roswell, so while many of our works were made in or around this area, our primary interest is not local history. Your grandmother's blanket chest then, would probably be a better fit for a place such as the historical society.

Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico concentrates on local history.

In short, try to find the mission statement for the museum you'd like to donate to, or explore the collection through a guidebook or website, as that will give you a sense of how appropriate your object is to that particular institution.

  • Rarity,  and quality
The Hope Diamond, Smithsonian Institution. Image courtesy of

When it comes to objects, what museums generally want are the best, most unusual, and most pristine examples of the objects they collect. Heavily used or well-worn objects can still be used for a teaching collection or as a comparison collection, but on the whole, if it's not exceptional, there will be limited interest. Age alone is usually not sufficient to get a piece into a museum.

The living room in my old apartment, ca. 2013, filled with my wonderfully average antiques.

Case in point: I've got a house full of antiques that my parents have given me over the years, and while I think they're wonderful, they'll probably never wind up in a museum because they're ordinary. They're not made of rare or exotic materials, they don't feature unique decorations, they're old but not old enough to make them rare, and they're not in pristine condition. Unless I become famous and these objects gain unusual status through association with me, they're going to keep on being wonderfully ordinary, and that's okay. Not every object is going to end up in a museum.

  • Condition

Mosaic conservation in Italy. Image courtesy of

All objects degrade over time, but having a piece in good condition will make a big difference in how a museum perceives your object. Unless it's a truly exceptional and significant piece historically and culturally, a museum will probably not be very interested in your piece if it's going to require a lot of expensive conservation work.

  • Provenance
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Provenance is the history of a piece's ownership, and it goes a long way towards verifying an object's authenticity. If you have paperwork (receipts, letters, etc.) verifying the history of your object, we're going to be more interested in it. This is especially important for museums collecting European art, as they want to avoid acquiring Nazi-confiscated pieces.

  • Storage
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This is probably the biggest factor I take into consideration whenever considering a prospective donation. Museums have finite storage space, so they have to be selective about what they accept. This is where mission, rarity, condition, and provenance all come together. Moving objects around in storage to make room for a new piece requires considerable planning, time and energy, so we want to make sure we're getting a worthwhile object if we're going to go through that process.

Okay, so you've got an unusual piece in mint condition with a watertight provenance, and it fits the mission of the museum you want to donate to perfectly. Time to drive it to the museum and drop it off, right?

NO. Stop right there.

Please, and I repeat, please do not drop off your object at a museum. Acquiring a prospective donation requires research and discussion among curatorial staff. It's a process that can take months and doesn't automatically guarantee acceptance. We need time to research the work and really determine whether it's a good fit for the collection. Moreover, we don't want you to feel like you've wasted your time and effort if we ultimately say no, so please, don't spontaneously drop off your object at the museum.

Museums aren't foundling hospitals for objects. Image courtesy of

Here's what you should do instead:

  1. Contact a curator and tell them about the object, whether by email, phone or letter. If they tell you that it's not appropriate to the collection or there's no room, try not to be disappointed. From my experience the majority of potential donations are turned down. If they are interested, however, they'll call you back and you can tell them more about the object.
  2. Send pictures of the object, along with any copies of any documentation. This will allow the curators to do further research and begin a conversation about the object and its appropriateness for the collection. They'll probably share these materials with an acquisitions committee or similar governing board, who will then decide whether to continue the process. If they decide not to continue, you'll be told thanks but no thanks. If they do want to proceed further, you may be asked to bring in the object.
  3. Only bring in the object if you are requested to do so. If the curatorial staff and the museum's governing board decides that the object might be a good fit for the collection, they'll want to see it in person so that they can examine it more closely. This doesn't automatically mean that it will be accepted into the collection, however, so keep that in mind when you bring it to the museum.
  4. Accept the final outcome. If it's accepted, huzzah, you'll be sent some paperwork to sign. If not, remember that many donations gets turned away due to limited storage and exhibition space. Regardless of the outcome, we know it takes time and energy to offer a work to a museum, and we really do appreciate your effort.
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Well, that's my take on donations. Next week we'll wrap up this series by exploring what you can do to help make museums even better.