Museums & Abandoned Property

We got the newest issue of Museum magazine this morning. The publication is produced by the American Association of Museums, in which our museum has a membership. The magazine is a benefit of membership and there are always useful articles inside that discuss some aspect of museum management. Of course, this issue (May/June 2011) was no different. It contains an article by Laura Donnelly-Smith called “Dropping Off: The Blessings and Curses of Doorstep Donations.” As you can tell from the subtitle, the article talks about property that is dropped off or abandoned at museums, the anonymous donor hoping that the museum will take care of whatever he left.

Abandoned property causes all kinds of problems for museums. First of all, we need to know the provenance or history of an item so that we can determine whether it will fit the needs of our collections. This includes knowing who donated an item. Once an item enters our collections, we have a responsibility to take care of it forever, which means paying for things like storage boxes and heat and humidity and staff time for the duration. (Forever is a looooooong time. These costs add up.)  This is appropriate for items that fit our mission, but if an abandoned artifact doesn’t fit our mission, we have to figure out how to dispose of it.

Because museums have a duty to care for whatever is donated, when something is abandoned but doesn’t belong in our collections, we have to follow a series of procedures dictated by state law in order to claim ownership so we may dispose of it. Each state has its own laws regarding abandoned property. The Museum article mentioned a website kept by The Society of American Archivists that links to each state’s abandoned property laws. Minnesota passed the Minnesota Museum Property Act in 2006, which details the procedures we would have to follow regarding abandoned property left  at the Weyerhaeuser Museum. Here’s the link to the appropriate statutes.

Section 345.73 spells out what Minnesota museums must do to acquire full title to abandoned property. When artifacts are officially donated to the museum, as opposed to abandoned, we have the donor fill out and sign a Donation Form, which transfers ownership of the items directly to the museum. If we don’t have a signature on a Donation Form, which would be the case with abandoned property, we have to try to find the donor, which includes posting a public notice. If no one comes forward to claim the abandoned property within 90 days and we can presume the property was intended as a gift to the museum, we can assume ownership of it.

Thankfully, it has been a long time since anyone has played “Ding-dong Ditch” with artifacts at the Weyerhaeuser Museum. (The Museum article mentions a person dashing into a museum to drop a Civil War sword on the front desk and dashing back out again. Can you imagine?) Those who donate tend to call ahead and are very understanding when we explain what we will and will not accept for the collections. A number of our donors are selective in what they offer based on our guidelines, which makes our collections much stronger.

If you’re considering donating artifacts to the Weyerhaeuser Museum or any other museum, please do call ahead and ask to speak to the person who handles collections. In our case, this is Ann Marie Johnson, our Curator of Collections. She can give you our collections guidelines and let you know whether we can accept your artifacts. She can be reached by calling 320-632-4007.

[Update – 5/18/2011: Sweet! AAM has announced that Museum magazine can be accessed online via a digital edition, so you can flip through and read the “Dropping Off” article I mentioned above. Here’s the link: http://www.onlinedigeditions.com/publication/?m=15664&l=1]

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