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For Find Out Friday - How Do Museums Acquire Their Objects?

I have watched enough episodes of Mysteries of the Museum to know that what a museum has in their possession may not have anything to do with the area that surrounds it. Sometimes a collection can be more like a random selection of objects than one that has been properly curated. 

This along with the story of Sue the T-Rex (, which still brings me pangs of pain, made me have to know for sure.

How and why do museums have what they have?

I also had the following questions:
  • Do museums buy artifacts? Yes
  • Can you sell your objects to a museum? Yes, and will receive a tax benefit.
  • What about those donated? Often donations are accepted if the museum feels it can be displayed in accordance with what is already on display.
  • What about the Smithsonian's? They use all of the above, primary donations though.
  • When talking about history, how many museums (knowingly and unknowingly) have stolen objects? Far more than we are comfortable with but there are processes in motion to rectify the situation. 
Apparently most items arrive to a museum based on their owners desire to share them with the world, a.k.a. they are gifted. 

On more rare occasions museums purchase artifacts from auctions, estate sales, or other reputable institutions. 

Whether for preservation or conservation, museums offer objects of great cultural and/or historical value a place to grow old where they can be properly cared for and appreciated. 

It falls to the curators of the museum to determine the true value of an object, monetarily and to the public. Often if the item is purchased, curators will also want to make sure the item they are buying is something that was close to the donor’s heart. Thus it doesn’t matter if an object has a local story to tell, it is more important to see if the story is worth telling at all. 

According to the American Association of Museums (yes there is such a place):

“Eight Hundred and Fifty million, that's how many visits are made to museums across the United States each year.”

That is a lot of time spend wondering around looking for the next, best, unexpected treasure.

More than just an obligation to please us the viewing public, museums have an obligation to ensure that every piece on display has not be received by ill gotten gains. Meaning that they are not stolen. 

Part of this is actually the responsibility of The International Council of Museums (ICOM). ICOM is a private organization that represents over twenty-thousand museums around the world. 

Morally if a museum has any reason to doubt the origins of the item they have received they should reach out to the police or experts in the field for verification. 

ICOM said in 2002: 

"Repatriation of objects is an issue that should be very carefully dealt with. Wise and thoughtful judgement is necessary. Unnecessarily strong judgements or declarations should in any case be avoided.”

While this process can take several years to complete and isn’t pleasant, the federal legislature has become taking measure to motivate museums to do the right thing.

For example, there is a 1990 law on the books that requires institutions that receive federal funding to return objects received illegally back to the country (and persons) of origin as well as to Native American tribes.

Coming up this week I will begin to share my escapades in Washington, D.C. a city where there are more great museums than I can count on one hand. The newest being the highly celebrated National Museum of African American History and Culture. I mention this because just about everything I got to see there was donated. Gift does not seem to be a big enough word to describe how these objects, both little and large, educate the world about the history of this culture from the very beginning. I assure you it was a breathtaking place and I hope to do it proud. 

Once you have seen a glimmer of what the world had to offer up; the plot surely thickens. 

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