August 14, 2012

Museums Probably Don’t Want Your Stuff

Museums probably don’t want your stuff. It’s hard to imagine but it’s the cold, hard truth. You may have family heirlooms that no one in your family has room for and you thought that a museum would want them. They might, ask around and see. But here are some reasons that a museum might not want your stuff and what to do with it instead:

1. It’s unlikely you have a truly “museum quality” piece. Museum quality means different things when dealing with different items. 

2. If your piece is quality, it might not have enough historical value or be significant or rare enough. Letters, diaries and photos are one-of-a-kind, mass produced items such as 20th century clothing or books, probably aren’t rare enough. The museum might even already have a few identical items. If it is a really historical piece, the quality probably doesn’t matter anyway. Letters, diaries and photos, get snatched up quickly as do items that are pre-1900.  

3. Most museums have big collections and small budgets. Artifact preservation, archiving and storage cost a lot of money. Would you believe the Library of Congress receives 22,000 donated items per day according to their website and adds 10,000 of those items to their collection daily? That’s a lot of conservation!   

The National WWII museum says it best “Due to the generous donations of WWII veterans, their families, friends and other donors, the Museum has neared its goal of acquiring a collection that is representative of the American Experience in World War II, thus the Museum must be selective with any new artifacts it accepts. Our archives, though, are ever growing, and we are particularly seeking additions to our archive of personal stories and wartime letters, diaries and photographs.”

Many people donate to museums with the idea that they can visit their item on display, but this is frequently not the case. Museums have many more items in storage than they do on display. Museums strive to tell stories through their exhibitions; your item may never make the display collection. Researchers will still be able to study your item but “visiting” the item with your grandkids might be out of the question. A museum might even sell your item after a few years if they don’t have room for it. Right now, museums are selling parts of their collections to make up for the lack of funding. 
What to do with family heirlooms that no one wants:

- You probably know at least one history-crazed person who would *love* your stuff. Not that I know any… :) 

-Try visiting local museums or museums in the town that the owner grew up in. A big war museum might not want dad’s Vietnam helmet but a small museum trying to tell the history of a town might.  

-See if any museums are putting on exhibits in the future that your piece might fit well in. Many museum websites have lists of items that they are accepting or want. 

- Consider donating to a local school, club, or community center. Many places, not just museums, are interested in telling the local history. Many reenacting groups like to have originals for study and for living history exhibits.

-Sell it. It might seem harsh to sell a family heirloom but if no one truly wants it, you are really under no obligation to keep it. Grandma would probably scold you for holding on to her wedding dress all of these years and tell you to buy something nice for her grand kids.  

Things to think about before you donate:

-Will you retain the rights to reprint or use photos and letters after you transfer ownership?

-Did you make a digital record of your things? Photograph artifacts from a variety of angles and scan photos and letters? Just because you don’t have room for the physical items doesn’t mean you have to erase their existence. You can find an online site and make the photos, letters and diary entries into books inexpensively. You could even make copies for your relatives. 

-Did you add a note to the item detailing the history of it? You might want to ask family members for further recollections. Help give the piece context. 

-Are you absolutely sure that you or your kids will not want the item? Will your kids want to show it to their kids? If you think this is a possibility, keep it until they are old enough to make the decision. If this is the case, you might consider loaning the item to a museum, if possible.


  1. Great post, Stephanie! Useful information. Especially that last point about considering whether children will someday wish they had the piece that's about to be sold or given away now. Unfortunately, "old enough to make the decision" and "old enough to regret having made that decision" are two different time frames...

    1. Yes, the 21 year old might care less, but really want that item when they are 35!

  2. What an interesting topic.
    Being on the board of our local historical society, we are constantly getting barraged with "family heirlooms," most of which aren't museum pieces at all.
    Some items are borderline ridiculous.
    I also frequent The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village quite often and have spoken with their curators. They have stated exactly as you wrote: most items in their collection are not displayed and some.
    Thanks for another great read!

    1. "I'm not sure your piece fits our museum's mission." :D That's a phrase that gets used a lot.

      It's true and it really makes me think about what I keep from my family. Photos and writings are a keep but I think I'll forgo the china, blender, and spice rack my mom got for her wedding and never used but has been saving for over 25 years because she thinks that I will use it. :D


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