This article originally appeared in the May/June 2011 edition of Museum magazine.
At the Idaho State Historical Museum in Boise, a man walked up to the information desk one afternoon clutching a cardboard box and looking agitated. He wanted to speak to a curator but refused to give his name. When a museum staff member came to meet the man, he still refused to identify himself, saying only that he thought the museum should have what was in the box, which he’d found in his mother’s attic. The museum staffer opened the box to find a collection of Ku Klux Klan memorabilia—robes, a horse’s hood and photographs of marches with notes about their locations and dates—all of which had belonged to the man’s mother.
“He said he’d felt horrified when he found the box because he hadn’t known his mother was ever in the Klan,” remembers Jody Hawley Ochoa, director of the museum, who had been a curatorial registrar when the incident took place in the early 1990s. “But he felt strongly that it was important that we take the box.” Though the donor never agreed to give any identifying information about himself or his mother, museum staff members decided that his statement that the museum should have the collection constituted a donation. They wrote up a deed of gift and accessioned the Klan materials, which are now part of the museum’s permanent collection.
While this situation might be dramatic, more pedestrian versions of the scenario play out regularly at museums and historical societies across the country—though most of the time, the proffered objects don’t end up in the collection. Called “doorstep donations,” “drop-offs,” “drop and runs” and a variety of other names, unsolicited donations can become a significant problem for institutions, especially for small museums that operate on shoestring budgets with mostly volunteer staff. These donations raise tricky questions: Who owns a doorstep donation? Can museums keep these objects if they want them? What if, as is more frequent, they don’t want them? Because each drop-off situation is unique, implementing consistent practices can be difficult. Museums don’t want to unduly discourage donations that might actually be useful or valuable. And state laws vary widely about how museums are even allowed to treat property acquired without any documentation.
Often, the first question museum staffers must ask is whether the object in question is really even a donation. Is an object delivered to the museum without a complete history, as in the case at the Idaho museum, treated differently from material left in a bag outside the front door when the museum is closed? What about something mailed to the museum without a return address?
“Doorstep donations are, in my opinion, abandoned property, left or delivered to the museum for the purpose of the museum hopefully taking it in,” says Rebecca Buck, deputy director of collection services at the Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey, and coauthor of Collection Conundrums: Solving Collections Management Mysteries. “‘Abandoned property’ has a specific definition-it’s consciously left at the museum, so it’s different from lost property, old loans or found-in-collection material. We’re talking property that has no known donor.” So the anonymous drop-off, the in-person-but-no-information drop-off, and the mail-in drop-off are all considered abandoned property for accession purposes.
What are the best practices for dealing with doorstep donations? The short answer, Buck says, is to prevent drop-offs in the first place by having clear, straightforward donations policies in place, and to ensure that all museum staff members understand and can enforce these policies with diplomacy. Then, if a doorstep donation does find its way to the museum, a combination of common sense and understanding of state laws can help registrars, curators and other staff members make confident decisions. Consistent treatment of doorstep donations is good collection
management practice, and can also provide valuable opportunities to educate visitors and would-be donors about how museums carry out their work.
At the Cincinnati Museum Center, which includes the Cincinnati History Museum, Museum of Natural History and Science, and Duke Energy Children’s Museum, Senior Registrar Jane MacKnight has been able to drastically reduce the number of drop-offs the museums receive simply by requiring that only she or another a member of the curatorial staff may accept unsolicited donations. In the past, donors would hand objects to floor staff or to docents, but these employees now know to direct the potential donor to the front desk, where staffers can call MacKnight. “I’ve tried to make myself available at any time, on the spur of the moment,” she says.
If the object the donor wants to drop off is potentially useful, she’ll create a temporary deposit form and put the object through the regular acquisition process. If the object clearly can’t be used, she explains her reasoning to the donor. “People are always very convinced they have something we want, that their object belongs here,” she says. “But just having a policy, words on paper, makes a big difference. Explaining the situation to people helps them understand our perspective.”
Many of MacKnight’s potential donors have visited the Cincinnati History Museum before and have seen costumed interpreters using period tools or materials. On their next trip to the museum, these visitors bring along the old knitting needles or lantern they found in grandma’s attic. The museum doesn’t officially accession anything used in its educational or interpretive programs, but MacKnight still requires a temporary deposit form be completed for objects intended for educational use. “I always get back in touch with the donor after I review the form and let them know that if we do use their object in an educational program, they might not ever get it back. I let them know we’ll keep it as long as it’s useful and then dispose of it.”
Dave Ryan, registrar at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, takes a pragmatic approach to unsolicited donations. While Colorado has an abandoned property act, it’s written mainly to apply to objects left on long-term loan, rather than unsolicited donations. So Ryan and his colleagues rely on the “prudent man principal”—what would a prudent person do?—to deal with each doorstep donation. “Some museums assume that they are responsible for everything that walks through the door. But in reality, we’re not responsible for an item unless we accession it. A lot of these issues can be resolved using common sense,” Ryan says. “If we want something that’s dropped off, we have an acquisition committee to approve it in a public process. If we don’t want it, it’s the prudent person principle.”
The Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum receives its fair share of unsolicited donations. A painting left leaning against the museum’s front door turned out to be nothing more than a framed placemat. Ryan donated that to Goodwill. A suitcase of newspaper clippings left outside the museum recently is being reviewed by archivists to determine if the content of the articles is relevant to the museum’s work. An elderly visitor brought in an antique music box that, while fitting for the museum’s music collection, was in extremely poor condition. “We couldn’t use it, but the donor refused to take it back to his car and he wouldn’t fill out any paperwork, either,” Ryan recalls. “We decided to keep the music box and use it for spare parts.”
Then there was the time, six or seven years ago, when a person ran into the museum, dropped a Civil War-era cavalry sword on the front desk and ran back out the door. While the Pioneers Museum has an extensive collection of Civil War objects-many of its early donors were veterans-and the sword would fit well into the collection, museum staff members were originally concerned that it might be stolen property. After working with local police to determine that the sword wasn’t stolen, the museum’s acquisition committee eventually decided to accession it as a found-in-collection item.
Back at the Idaho State Historical Museum, unsolicited donations have become increasingly infrequent since Director Ochoa implemented—and publicized—a strict donation policy. “When I first started here, in the early ’80s, there weren’t even temporary receipts issued, and the receptionist was signing deeds of gift,” Ochoa remembers.
Since then, much has changed. Now, anyone who brings an unsolicited donation into the museum is met by a curatorial staff member. “We know enough now to say no on the spot in many cases, especially if they have no history on the item and they just found something in the basement,” Ochoa says. She encourages potential donors to call or e-mail with information about their items, so that staff members can review it, respond and, if needed, request pictures and more details. “We turn away as many donations as we accept-we maybe get 100 unsolicited donations a year and accept 40,” she says. “But every once in awhile, something really great comes in out of the blue, and we’ll take it.”
Ochoa has also trained volunteers and front desk staff members to be conversant about the donations policy and to encourage visitors to call before bringing items in. “Our mission is to interpret Idaho history,” she says. “If we don’t know anything about an item, how can we take it? Having a good solid policy is really key, and it protects everyone, including the volunteers,” she says. Registrars from her museum regularly work in cooperation with the Idaho Association of Museums , to give presentations about crafting good donation policies at many of the more than 70 smaller historical institutions in Idaho—the majority of which are staffed by people without formal museum training.
Even if a museum has a good donations policy in place, it’s also important that staff members stay abreast of laws that apply to museum donations. This is especially important in cases where a drop-off donation cannot be prevented and must be dealt with after the fact. Some state laws are written to apply specifically to museums and other cultural institutions, while others are general unclaimed property laws that apply to many other situations—such as clothing left at a dry cleaner. Most laws protect the default owner of a piece of abandoned property—the museum—from legal actions brought by a claimant, provided that the museum has carried out the proper procedures. While these procedures vary from state to state, they generally involve making good-faith efforts to find and contact the original donor, publishing a notice about the object in question in the newspaper and waiting for a designated period. If, after this waiting period, the museum is unable to find the donor and no one has come forward to claim the object, the museum may generally do what it wishes with the object and is protected from future legal actions by persons claiming to have donated the object in question.
In the past decade, a number of states have passed or updated laws that direct how museums may treat doorstep or drop-off donations. In Ohio, for example, a law was passed in 2004 that gives a museum all rights to an unsolicited donation after only 90 days. If the donor doesn’t reappear in that time period, the museum may accession or dispose of the item as it sees fit without having to first try to reach the donor or publicize the object. “This law takes the burden off museums,” says MacKnight, of the Cincinnati Museum Center. “It’s especially important for small historical societies and historical houses. They get a lot of donations and don’t have a lot of staff.”
Similar laws exist in more than 30 other states, though the waiting periods for museums to gain rights vary greatly—in Texas, museums must wait 15 years, for example. In Utah, the law presumes that “any reposited materials held by a collecting institution are the property of that collecting institution” and puts the burden of proof of title on the claimant, not the museum. The Society of American Archivists’ Abandoned Property in Cultural Institutions Law Project has created an online state-by-state guide (archivists.org/saagroups/acq-app/abandonedlist.asp) with links to state codes and statutes that cover abandoned property.
The best donation policy in the world and a good understanding of the law still can’t always prepare museum staff members for the difficult task of saying no to potential donors who have strong emotions about the objects they try to donate. It’s a dilemma, Carol Manley, curator of collections at the Holocaust Museum Houston, faces regularly. Though Manley has written a front desk donation procedure for volunteers and an artifact donation guide that directs potential donors to call or e-mail her before bringing objects in, drop-in donations are still a problem. And because the museum deals with such a sensitive subject, donors are often emotional about their objects.
“You’ve got a 50-year-old woman at the front desk with something Nazi-related that her neighbor gave her, she doesn’t know what to do with it, and it becomes really personal,” Manley explains. “How do you say no to someone who’s visiting from Amsterdam and brought something they think is valuable?”
In the past, museums such as hers tended to follow a practice that directed that Nazi-related items—even material that was inauthentic or mass—produced should be accepted, even if the museum couldn’t use it, to get it “off the street.” Nowadays, the prevailing wisdom is that Holocaust museums should focus the scope of their collections and devote resources to collecting only those items that will truly benefit the museums and their mission to educate the public. “Every potential donor thinks they’re doing the right thing,” Manley says. “In the past, you might accept something you knew wasn’t worth the collection to avoid hurt feelings. Volunteers would accept things, thinking if we couldn’t use it we’d just throw it out. But you can’t do that.”
The Holocaust Museum Houston was founded in 1995 by local Holocaust survivors. Because many of these survivors and their descendants still live in Houston, the museum has a very personal feel to them. Veterans of World War II and their families also feel a strong connection to the museum and frequently try to donate objects. The museum was run by volunteers for most of its first decade, and it wasn’t until later that museum professionals like Manley were hired.
As she works to gain intellectual control of the collection and prepare for AAM accreditation, she’s forced to make hard decisions involving both new unsolicited donations and material that was donated years ago. “A lot of veterans’ families want to honor their loved ones by donating patches, uniforms, things like that. If they can prove that the family member was a liberator of one of the camps, that’s one thing, but most of these donations are too general,” Manley says.
Many people also try to donate mass-produced items like postcards and photo reprints purchased in Europe in the gift shops at concentration camp museums. Manley spends a lot of time politely explaining why things like this aren’t suitable for donation. Still, members of Houston’s Holocaust-survivor community and their family members can be excellent sources for both donations and education. “I’m not against unsolicited donations. I’m against drop-offs,” Manley says.
Every contact with a potential donor is an opportunity to educate about a museum’s mission and collection goals, and would-be donors are less likely to get emotional if they’re given a clear explanation of the issues like storage, insurance, and documentation that museums must consider for every item they acquire. Rebecca Buck of the Newark Museum says that honing the ability to say no is just a fact of life of being a curator. “Saying no to a donation is more respectful than being wishy-washy about it,” she says. “I would guess that 70 or 80 percent of unsolicited donations are things you can’t use, and donors don’t like to hear that. But you can take the opportunity to explain to them what you can and cannot use, and they might bring in something really lovely later.”