Thursday, July 26, 2012

What Happens When an Artifact is Donated?

     Did you ever wonder what happens to an artifact when it is donated to a museum?  Who decides if the artifact belongs in the museum’s permanent collection?  What happens if the museum can’t use that artifact?

     Most museums have a mission statement which states the museum’s goals in collecting.  They can be a bit subjective though, so usually donated artifacts must be approved by the museum’s Board of Directors.  In the case of my museum, donated artifacts are first considered by the Accession Committee.  They consider whether the artifacts fall within the museum’s mission statement, whether the artifacts can be suitably cared for by the museum, and whether the artifacts would duplicate items already in the collection.  The committee’s recommendations are then sent to the Board for approval. 
     Let’s follow a few donated items through the process to see what happens to them.  We’ll look at a medical field case, a brass suppository mold (which you may recognize from an earlier post!), and a clay ink well, which were all donated in the past several months.  See if you can predict whether these items will be accepted for the collection.

This is a leather U.S. Army Surgeon’s Field Case, sometimes called a Surgeon’s Companion. This case was designed to carry small bottles of medicine and some basic medical supplies onto the battlefield. It had two straps and was designed to be suspended by a shoulder strap while being supported by a waist strap. The surgeon could carry this case, but usually it was carried by the person assisting the surgeon. In this instance, it was a hospital steward.

The case contains a label which lists the contents. The bottom line states that the whiskey contained in one of the tins could be discolored by the metal, but that it did not affect the medicinal qualities. Based on some of the accounts I’ve read, if the soldiers were offered whiskey, I don’t think they were too concerned about any color change!

In this photo, you can see the “US” embossed on one of the medicine containers from the field case.

This is a photo of the owner of the field case, Hospital Steward Jacob Tomer, 3rd PA Cavalry. It is always more exciting to have an artifact with an identified owner!

     As you might expect, it all starts with paperwork!  The artifact donor signs a Deed of Gift which transfers ownership of the artifact to the museum.  In return, they receive a letter thanking them for their gift and acknowledging it for tax purposes (artifact donations for the museum collection are tax deductible!).  I then start a file for the item, and enter it on the museum’s data base as a “Temporary Custody”.  If there is any information about the past owners of an artifact, as with the Hospital Steward listed above, I pass that along to our Researcher.  She searches for any additional information which we add to our files.

Here is the brass suppository mold again. Though it is similar to molds from the Civil War, it was eventually determined that this particular mold was from after the Civil War.

     Each artifact is examined carefully, assigned a number, photographed, measured, tagged, and put into the quarantine area.  If it is here for more than a month without any signs of pests or other issues, it can be moved into a temporary storage area in the collection room.   

This is a Civil War era glazed clay ink well which was donated as part of a collection of Civil War medical items. Though it may not appear to be medically relevant at first, consider that the surgeons and care-givers had to fill out paperwork relating to the wounded soldiers.

     The Accession Committee is made up of four members of the museum’s Board of Directors and me.  We meet once a year to vote on the artifacts donated since the previous meeting.  In most cases it is a pretty obvious decision, but we do have discussions about some items.  If an item is in poor condition, we must determine if we want to take on the responsibility of preserving it.  If we have duplicate items in the collection, we discuss if the proposed artifact is unique in any way and if it would enhance the collection.  Sometimes there are questions about the relevance to the museum’s mission which must be resolved.  Also, on occasion we will accept items which are part of a collection, for example a collection of a Civil War Surgeon’s personal items.  Some of these items might not normally be accepted individually, but have relevance as a part of the collection.   

     The committee also makes recommendations regarding the artifacts which are not accepted into our collection.  Items may be returned to their donor, transferred to the museum’s Education Department for use in their outreach programs, used as props in the exhibits, given or traded to other museums, or sold to benefit the museum.   

     So, what do you think happened to the items listed above?  It’s probably no surprise that a medical field case which is identified to a Hospital Steward is definitely relevant to a museum focusing on Civil War medicine!  It was very happily accepted for accession into the collection.  The suppository mold was rejected because it was post-war, and it was given to the museum’s Education Department.  The clay ink well caused a little more discussion.  Though it was relevant, it was a duplicate of one we have in the collection.  It was not unique in any way, and it was decided that we were unlikely to need it for display.  It will be offered to another museum.

     Now I start the process of changing the status of the artifacts which were accepted from “Temporary Custody” to “Accessioned” on the data base.  I will also label them and find storage spaces for them in the collection room.  I will save the details of that process for another post though!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine

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