Donating to a museum
Thinking of donating your jewellery collection to a museum? That is fabulous! Donating it to a museum is a great way to ensure this heritage is preserved for future generations. But even so, it’s not a decision made lightly, as you entrust the passion of your lifetime to someone else. Therefore, it is very important to explore and carefully weigh your options, so you can decide on a well-informed basis where your collection should go. I would advise to start that process well in advance, as not every donation is automatically accepted by museums. Here are some points to consider when donating your collection.
Start by evaluating your reasons for donating. For example, you could be downsizing as a result of moving to a smaller home: that happens quite often. Donating for tax reasons is also not unheard of: sizeable donations may come with tax benefits. When your heirs are not all that interested in your life’s work, the question what should happen to it after you’ve gone becomes all the more pressing, and knowing your collection is safe and cared for provides much needed peace of mind. What do you envisage their future to be? Do you see them in a jewellery museum, in an ethnographic museum, in an art museum, and could that also be a museum in the communities that these pieces culturally form part of?
Last, but certainly not least, there is your personality to take into account: do you see yourself taking family and friends to a museum to show them your contribution glinting in a showcase, or are you more of a ‘behind-the-scenes’-person? Just to be clear, both are fine! I can tell you from experience it’s extremely cool to see your jewellery displayed in an actual museum, and also that it’s very, very rewarding to be donating anonymously. When it comes to managing your own expectations, it is very useful to pause for a moment and consider why you would like to donate – do you want to get anything out of it and if so, what would that be? Once you have a view on the ‘why’ of your plan to donate, it will become easier to find an institution that aligns with your values.
Next is contacting the museum you have in mind. Ask after their guidelines, policies, criteria and procedures for accepting donations – some museums already have all of this on their website. Bear in mind that not all museums accept everything: they may decide to accept only a few pieces and leave the rest. And that is a sound decision on their part! Because if all museums accepted everything that was ever collected, what would that mean in terms of storage space and longtime care…? Contacting the museum of your choice well in advance will be helpful as it allows you to prepare your donation, or to start looking for other museums if your donation should not be a good match. Don’t forget to ask away when you have contacted a curator to discuss possibilities: what is the museum’s view on deaccession? Do they have plans in place for an open-access database? Will your collection be mainly in storage as reference collection, or will it be visible (even if it is just digitally)?
Think about tax implications. Donating your collection may have tax implications (both positive and negative), so these should be discussed at an early stage. Getting an appraisal may be useful for tax purposes as well as for providing the museum of your choice with an indication of the value of your donation. Not every museum requires this though, and you could also decide to simply donate it because of the contribution you’ll make to a shared heritage. Note that laws and legislation vary per country, so consult your tax advisor as well as the museum on this in an early stage.
Have your documentation up to date. Now this is an important point: increasingly, you’ll be asked to provide documentation of your jewellery, such as its provenance, as well as identifications of the pieces you’re donating. Museums do not always have the resources available to work on an identification of your pieces themselves, due to budget and time constraints. Notably the provenance documentation will grow in importance over the coming decades. An up-to-date registration of your collection is also useful in for example an overview of the materials that it consists of: are there materials that require special care in storage?
Another possibility to consider here is making your documentation part of the donation itself. If you own, for example, a library on the topic of your collection (jewellery books, anyone?), adding these to a museum library will effectively turn that into a specialized research library that will benefit students and scholars alike. Many museums host book sales to support their library or other budgets: any double copies could be sold, and they would still end up in the most appreciating hands.
And finally, terms and conditions. If you have specific conditions in mind on how your jewellery can or cannot be displayed or used, be sure to discuss these with the museum in advance. Is it enough for you if your collection is not put on display, but available to whoever wants to study it? Do you want your name attached to your collection? It’s good to be aware that some museums accept only unconditional gifts, meaning they can do with your collection as they please. That may include selling parts of it. Too many restrictive conditions will make it less desirable for a museum to accept your donation, so this is a point that requires careful consideration and negotiation.
The main thing to keep in mind when donating your collection though is the inevitable transfer from ‘your’ collection to ‘their’ collection. That can be a tough one: a museum may not value the pieces you love the most in the same way you do, and once the collection has been donated, it is no longer yours.
But when a curator has taken the time to walk you through the donation process, explained the possible future of your pieces in the collection (including deaccession), or made a selection of pieces that are truly an addition to the museum, you can rest assured you will have done everything you can to give your collection a secure, meaningful future.
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Sigrid van Roode
Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. Her main field of expertise is jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, as well as archaeological and archaeological revival jewellery. She has authored several books on jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, Turquoise Mountain Jordan, and many others. She provides consultancy and research on jewellery collections for both museums and private collections, teaches courses and curates exhibitions. She is not involved in the business of buying and selling jewellery, and focuses on research, knowledge production, and education only.