Trash or Treasure?

Working for a museum has been an eye-opener, particularly since my career path veered into the realm of collections (as in items collected, not money owed).

Donors to museums, rightly so, often gift a host of unique, fascinating, informative and educational items.  However, all too often there are donors who look at it as “either/or”… either donate it to the museum or take it to the dump.


If it’s truly a treasure that needs preservation, then yes, absolutely donate it to the museum. But if it’s trash? Really?

Oftentimes the story is they have an item – usually something a relative owned, that was passed down to them. It’s something they never asked for or wanted, and they know it has that regional connection… so they get hold of the regional museum before sending it off to the landfill.

Truth is, people are often confused as to what the appropriate step is to take. They hate to see it destroyed, but don’t wish to have the item in their personal care any longer.

Museums all have mission statements, and often those mission statements set the perimeters for what they can, and should, accession into their collections. Not everything fits the mission. A collection of Southwest Navajo basketry doesn’t belong in a museum that displays the works of the Pacific Northwest.

When donating a gift, it’s important to make the donation free of conditions. Too often people expect a donation will be be immediately put on display. That is rarely the case. Space is always limited in a building with walls, and usually exhibit areas are filled. The museum can be a caretaker for the donation, to see it’s kept in a controlled environment to extend its lifespan. But it is important to release expectations of whether or not a museum will display the item.

If you have an item you’ve considered donating, by all means give your local museum a call and talk to the registrar or person in charge of collections. If it doesn’t fit the museum’s mission, they can make suggestions to you of other appropriate museums.

And if a museum declines it, yet the item tugs – even slightly – at your heartstrings, don’t toss it into the trash. Gift it a new home. Sell it online, gift it to an antiques dealer… but if it tells a tale of history, don’t take it to the dump. Someone out there will love it.