What Does a Museum Want?


This ceramic cup and saucer was used by President William McKinley moments before he was shot at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in 1901.

Want to see your collection in a museum? It’s possible, maybe.

A piece of an old flag, a ceramic cup and saucer, gilded silverware, a vintage toy chest, a 1970 baseball card collection, an abstract painting, a writing desk, and an old Soviet-era car. Which of these became a national treasure?

Of the list, only three of them were important enough to be added to the Smithsonian Institution’s historic collection:  the piece of an old flag was from the Marshall House in Alexandria, Virginia where Union officer Elmer Ellsworth was shot and killed for removing a Confederate flag in 1861, considered the first casualty of the Civil War; the ceramic cup and saucer was used by President William McKinley moments before he was shot at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in 1901; and the writing desk was used by Thomas Jefferson when he penned the Declaration of Independence. These items were acquired by the Smithsonian Institution from family or descendants.

flag from marshal house

A piece of the flag from the Marshal House where Union officer Elmer Ellsworth was shot and killed for removing a Confederate flag in 1861.

None of the rest could qualify. Why not?

The reason some are acquired and most are not, according to Legacies: Collecting America’s History at the Smithsonian, by Stephen Lubar and Kathleen M. Kendrick, depends on more than just being an interesting relic; they need to be unique artifacts, too. To the Smithsonian “…a relic is a story one can touch.” It speaks to you with your senses as an item of wonder. Paintings do that.

But, an object needs to go beyond just a story. It needs to “…evoke a larger world.” The ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz certainly do that. In other words, the slippers may be just red shoes, but the compelling story they tell goes beyond what they are. These are artifacts, the kinds of things major museums are looking for.

ruby red slippers

The ruby red slippers worn by Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz.”

Ok, so you have a “museum quality” artifact that you feel should be on display at a well known national museum? How does it go from being a relic to an artifact? Here’s how museums categorize what you have according to a 1997 report of the Smithsonian Institution Council on acquisition policy:

For cultural artifacts, priority was to be accorded to items that “…a) are in danger of being irreparably lost; b) represent and record important historical events; c) have multiple meanings for different segments of U.S. society; d) are judged to have unusually high quality; e) fill important gaps in existing collections; and f) illustrate important expressions of human creativity…” and,

For natural history artifacts, priority was to be given to those that “…a) are in danger of being irreparably lost; b) fill in evolutionary lineages not yet represented in SI collections; and c) generate material for new kinds of analyses and understandings.”

Museums weigh relevance when looking at an acquisition, not just for now, but for the future as well. After a time the story may be lost or is no longer compelling. It’s happened. Have you heard about the US Life-Saving Service? Probably not.

The life-saving car designed by Joseph Francis.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a life saving car invented by Joseph Francis was used routinely to transport shipwreck victims to shore. It was considered quite the miracle and helped saved many lives from being lost at sea. For a time it was the most popular exhibit at The National Museum in Washington, DC. As shipwrecks became less common, the life saving vehicle faded from memory and it was finally removed from public exhibit about 1920.

Compare that to Jefferson’s writing desk. It has not faded over time. You can almost feel the importance of its contribution to creating the very beginning of a new Republic.

thomas jefferson's writing

Thomas Jefferson’s writing desk used when he penned the Declaration of Independence.

Both were important artifacts that help tell a compelling story. The life saving boat, though, has lost its national importance, because its relevance was lost. It has now been in storage unseen by the public for nearly 100 years requiring storage space and continued maintenance utilizing fiscal resources not otherwise available for other acquisitions or upkeep. Jefferson’s desk remains on display well after it was acquired. When looking for acquisitions, relevance matters.

However, your local museum may see things quite differently. Papers, objects, clothing, personal items and other ephemera specific to the history of Fairfax County in Virginia, for example, would be more likely to be acquired without fanfare. But a local museum’s need for historical relevance is usually much more focused and funds for acquisition are in even shorter supply.

So let’s say your relic or artifact is acquired either nationally or locally. Apart from personal satisfaction, are there other advantages for doing so? There are a few things to consider.

Today, most museums, large or small, have limited budgets to buy collections outright even if the donor provides an endowment for its care, although that does help. Curating, preserving, and maintaining the collection over time is part of the decision making process as well.

That’s why museums prefer to provide tax deductions rather than buy an artifact outright from its rather limited endowment funds or general outlays. Just know that a professional appraisal is needed for a collection valued at $5,000. With a professional valuation over $50,000, an approval will be needed from the Internal Revenue Service itself. The tax deduction overall will also be determined based on your adjusted gross income for the year, too.

The next question would be whether the final donation to a 501c(3), not-for-profit museum of a collection is to be valued at “fair market value” or under “capital gains” rules. The final determination may affect how your deduction is treated by the IRS.

Also, museums may want to be able to dispose of a collection, or part of a collection, over time to reduce the need for constant storage and maintenance similar to the life saving car. But, they can’t do it within the first three years or the terms of your deduction changes.

This is just a quick primer. Worthologist Liz Holderman’s article, “What You Need to Know about Charitable Contributions and Tax Deductions” may help further.

Finally, there is the compelling case of the old Soviet-era car. The International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, has an exhibit showing how individuals escaped from behind the Berlin Wall by hiding themselves in the Trabant, an East German small car. So, an authentic Trabant of the period was acquired as part of an interactive exhibit.

east german trabant

The East German Trabant, which is currently in the International Spy Museum.

While the Trabant didn’t become a national treasure, it’s relevance was still important in telling a compelling story at a private museum. You see, unlike the Smithsonian Institution which gets 70% of its operating budget from federal outlays, the private nonprofit museum, like the International Spy Museum, gets all of its operating expenses on its own. Are there different acquisition requirements and rules for a private museum? Maybe so.

No matter, after all is said and done, history still needs to be told through compelling artifacts. The question remains, what do you have that museums might need to do that?

Tom Carrier is a General Worthologist with a specialty in Americana, political memorabilia and he has been the resident WorthPoint vexillologist (flags, seals and heraldry) since 2007. Tom is also a frequent contributor of articles to WorthPoint.

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