Thursday, January 26, 2012

Acquiring Artifacts

     How do museums end up with the items in their collections?  Most people seem to assume that we buy them, and that is certainly one way to acquire artifacts.  Smaller museums tend to have smaller budgets though, and generally can’t afford to buy a large number of artifacts.  In our case, usually only some smaller items are purchased.

This Civil War era tin bedpan was my first purchase for the museum. It is currently on display in our hospital exhibit.

    Many times artifacts are donated to a museum.  Usually the donor wishes their items to be preserved for future generations and displayed for all to learn from and enjoy.  It doesn’t hurt that their gift is tax deductible too!  So really, donations benefit the donor, the museum, and the people who come to the museum.

     Donations can arrive at the museum in different ways.  In some cases a museum staff member picks it up from the donor.  Sometimes the items are shipped, and in a few cases donors have simply mailed them.  In other cases the donor delivers the item in person – sometimes with an appointment and sometimes not!  It isn’t unusual for me to be called to the front desk to look at an item which someone has just brought into the museum.  Sometime wonderful artifacts have simply “walked in” to our museum.  At times though, I have to break it to people that their items are not what they thought they were, or are simply items that we cannot use.  I really never know what I’m going to find when I get these calls!

This is a Harper's Weekly newspaper from August 17, 1861 that was donated to the museum. You can see it has a very nice front illustration of a wounded Zouave in a hospital at Washington, D.C.

     Items can also be donated to museums through bequests, when the ownership of the item is transferred to the museum after the owner’s death.  So far I have not dealt with receiving a bequest, and I am happy that our donors are still with us!

     I have mentioned in previous posts that we sometimes borrow artifacts we need for our displays.  These artifacts can come from individuals or from other museums.  Sometimes too, loaned items are eventually donated to the museum.

This two-piece wood and brass pill roller is on loan to the NMCWM, and is currently displayed in our pharmacy wagon.

     I don’t have the final say on which artifacts become part of the museum’s permanent collection though.  As much as we’d like to collect every possible Civil War item, the reality is that we also have to consider our storage space and the cost of caring for the artifacts in the collection.  So each new acquisition must be reviewed by the Accession Committee.  This committee considers whether each new acquisition fits the museum’s scope and mission, and if the museum has the resources to properly care for, store, and display it.  Items which are not accepted into the permanent collection can be used by the museum’s education department, returned to the donor, sold, or donated to another museum.   

This is an 1862 Colt Police Pocket Pistol which belonged to Brigadier-General Gustavus A. Sniper. Though at first you might not see the need for a firearm in a museum which deals with Civil War medicine, it was approved to be accessioned into our collection. It will be used in a future exhibit which will show what types of wounds were inflicted by the various weapons used during the war.

     Once an artifact becomes part of the museum’s permanent collection, it is my job to ensure that it receives the highest possible level of care.  Though it can be challenging at times, on most days I think I have the best job in the world!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

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