Anyone who works with museum collections has gotten weird calls from people who want to donate stuff.
I totally understand this impulse. You’re cleaning out your closet or basement or your great aunt’s 4 story house or garden shed and you come across that thing, that fabulous whats-it that is full of historical interest and charm that everyone in the world would definitely appreciate. Hmmm, you think. How can I make sure everyone in the world gets the chance to appreciate it? I know! I’ll call LaLa!
Most of them don’t actually know my name, at least not at first, but they do eventually. I’m the person they call when they picture themselves on the road to altruistic glory. They can selflessly donate this thing (did I mention the thing is usually 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet and weighs 1.8 tons?) to us, I’ll store it, clean it and lovingly display it, most certainly with a big ol’ shiny gold plaque bearing the donor’s selfless name in big letters.
Actually, only a small percentage of people call us with that motivation (or result, for that matter). Often I get calls from lovely people who have somehow ended up with an interesting thing without knowing how. (Picture the Wicked Witch of the East minding her own business when that house suddenly landed on her without warning. If it hadn't squashed her she'd probably have decided it was a historically valuable structure and called to offer it to me). And now, since they didn’t ask for it and don’t want to live with it anymore, they’re looking for a nice home for it. Some try ebay, some try local history museums. And some try me.
Oh the things they’ve tried on me. The dead owl stuck in the backyard fence. The 15 foot tall metal teddy bear sculpture. The basement sized train set. The Jiminy Cricket collectibles collection. The small village diorama made entirely of newspapers. The antique pediatric examination table. The life-sized costume of the Boston Baked Bean.
It may surprise you to hear that one of the requirements of my job is being a diplomatic turner-downer. I can let you down so easy you’ll never feel the bump. I do this partly because personally, I’m one of those people who treasures things, and most of the time I probably agree with you that the thing you want to see in a museum should be in a museum. Just not this one. So I’ll point you toward a few other deserving institutions and send you on your way.
Another reason I’m a good turner-downer is that I’m a southern woman, and the diplomacy gene is strong within me. Really. It is. I may snort with laughter when you call up offering me the owl carcass you found in your backyard, but you won’t hear it. I’ll do my snorting out of earshot. I'm ladylike that way.
Although I have good turning-down skills, I don’t enjoy using them. I do, however, prefer the chance to use them to the alternative, which is poking around in my office and finding something that was donated on spec 20 years ago and never dealt with. That would be because 20 years ago, whoever was on staff was NOT a good turner-downer, and just said something like, “Why sure, bring it on by, we’ll have a look and if we decide to keep it we’ll send you the paperwork. If we don’t decide to keep it…” Actually I have no idea if they ever started that second part of the reply. Maybe they just accepted everything offered to them. Sometimes in my office it REALLY feels like that.
The typewriters, books, bags of aprons and doilies, birdcages, dolls, dolls, dolls, and more dolls that fill up the corners of my office, all from donors who never heard the words ‘No thanks.’ If I could go back in time, my small contribution might be to implement a more stringent acceptance policy regarding museum donations.
Oh, and while I was at it, perhaps a more comprehensive approach to record-keeping. I hate finding something marvelous in our collections, looking it up in the card-catalogue and seeing something unhelpful like “Basket. Brown.” written in the description section. Well, duh. I can see it’s a brown basket, thankyouverymuch. Or worse, finding something marvelous in the collection and not being to look it up at all because the numbers and tags have disappeared. We have a fabulous example of whimsical wood-carving from the early 20th century – and no idea who made it, how or why he made it, when it was donated, or who donated it to us. It’s simply a great-looking mystery.
Speaking of mysteries, you may be wondering why I’m ranting on about all this stuff. I hate to tell you this, but I’m not really sure why. I just love this stuff. I’m like that catalogue card. “Museum person. Devoted and odd.”