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Just because it's FREE, doesn't mean it's a good deal.

Boxes of donated stuff that need to be sorted.

Has this ever happened in your organization? Someone shows up at your museum with a car load of things hoping you'll take them off his or her hands. The volunteer or staffer who answers the door, agrees to take the items because they're antiques, or at least vintage, and taking them is better than letting them end up stashed in someone's garage or attic where they'll get damaged or destroyed. After all, it's what your organization does -- it saves stuff.

The next day you discover three 120-piece sets of china, two dozen linen tablecloths of various sizes, an assortment of picture frames, a stack of phonograph records, and four boxes of old books sitting in the middle of your workroom. At first glance, it looks like you scored, right?

Maybe not.

Too many organizations jump at the chance to accept everything that's offered to them without giving much thought to what they're going to do with the items; they take them simply because they're "old," free, and no one wants to hurt the donor's feelings by refusing them. As a result of this practice, small museums often find themselves overwhelmed with artifacts, many of which have nothing to do with their mission or their organization. Many, if not most items will remain in the boxes in which they arrived, rather than become part of an engaging exhibit. The few that do go on display generally become just another entry in "artifacts on parade" and tell no story. Ultimately, there are just too many artifacts to their collection to do justice to any of them.

It Doesn't Have to Be This Way!

To break this pattern, and avoid falling back into down the road, there are two important questions your organization should ask itself before anything finds its way into your collection:

  1. Does the item relate to our mission?

  2. Does it fill a need?

If the answer to the first question is "no", then accepting the items, no matter what they are or how much you like them, is NOT the right decision. Period. End of discussion. The potential donor should be redirected to another organization or given other options. If, however, the answer is "yes", go to the next question: does it fill a need? This one actually has several related questions that should be asked depending on your initial answer.

If the answer is once again "yes", the item does fill a need, then it can be considered for acceptance. The related questions at this point are: Can it go on display immediately, or must it be stored? If it must be stored, is there adequate space? If the answer is "needs to be stored" and you have no space, you may need to reconsider whether to accept the item.

If the answer to the second question is "no", however, there is very little reason to accept the item, and "we might need it one of these days" is NOT one of them! Good reasons are:

  • You already have the item, but the duplicate is in better condition. If so, then consider accepting it and take appropriate action - preserve or deaccession and dispose of the other;

  • You need duplicates because the item is a high-demand or frequent-use item, and having a backup would be helpful, or

  • Duplicate items would facilitate program or exhibit development.

These are really the only valid reasons for accepting something which you already have in your collection. Others are just excuses. Remember, you don't have to take everything that shows up on your doorstep; it's okay to turn them down -- your organization may be the repository for local history, but it is not the community attic! To avoid becoming one, or to break the cycle if you are already seen as such, you need a clear collections policy; it will help ensure you stay focused on your mission, and make it easier to say "no" to unrelated or unnecessary acquisitions. Don't have a collections policy? Historical Perspectives can help you develop one.

A Parting Thought . . .

On a similar note, you should apply the same approach to random donations made by individuals who mean well -- you know who I mean, the woman who drops off 2500 sticky note pads and a 2-gallon bag of rubber bands because she got a great deal on them, or the man who brings over three large boxes of assorted old ring binders because it's easier than tossing them. While you don't want to discourage people from donating, be proactive by posting a list of the supplies (including quantities) you need in your newsletter or someplace in your facility that's easy to see to help ensure you receive donations you can actually use. Then stick to your policy: if you don't have a need for something, don't accept it! Decline politely and direct the individual to other organizations that could better benefit from the donation. This way, everyone wins.

Want to know more about managing your collections? Contact us today for more information!

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