Transformation Tuesday: Donation Etiquette
As we’re coming into fall people are settling back into their homes, pulling out things they’ve forgotten about, and trying to clear out their spaces before the weather turns. This urge means that we, as an institution that periodically takes donations, get a number of inquiries about donations. In recognition of that, here’s some etiquette for you to follow while attempting to donate items to your local heritage institution.
*Note: We, the Newfoundland and Labrador Pharmacy Museum, are not accepting donations at this time.*
We’ll start with some things to keep in mind while you’re viewing your items and considering what, if anything, you could donate to your local heritage institution.
Museums are Specialized Collections
Museums are repositories of specialized knowledge. Each museum has what can generously be described as a theme - formally referred to as a collections mandate - which helps them decide what they can and cannot take into their care. Accepting a donation is a legal responsibility, and as the heritage industry is chronically underfunded, institutions like museums must make sure that they can indefinitely take care of anything they accept into their care.
In that vein, collections mandates are purposefully curated to help museums say no to donations. This is important; if museums were to accept every donation that came to their door, they would quickly become overwhelmed. In addition to taking physical space on the shelves, every artifact requires its own set of legal and administrative paperwork, constant monitoring, and a variety of conservational efforts depending on the artifact’s needs.
In our case, the NLPM is already overwhelmed with incoming artifacts. As you all already know, our collection is inherited, which means that we are constantly inundated with new accessions from within our own building, as well as any we accept from outside donors.
What Can You Donate?
What does your local heritage institution collect? As with above, the collections mandate is a great place to start. This information will likely be available on their "about" page, and this is essential information to keep in mind when you’re thinking about donating items. This information might be named as their "collections mandate", but it may also be called something like their "mission statement," or their "vision".
We, the NLPM, collect items whose provenance (or, the item’s history) is directly connected to the people or culture of Newfoundland and Labrador. Specifically, as a pharmacy museum, we collect things that you would find in a pharmacy. This is not to be confused with general medical supplies; we, for example, do not collect items from hospitals, clinics, or other medical institutions. In particular, we do not accept modern (1970 or later) pill bottles, whether they came from a pharmacy or not. Plastic degrades quickly, especially with often-acidic pills inside, and we are not equipped to care for them.
In addition, we – along with all other heritage institutions – do not accept donations for items we already havef. Generally, an institution will accession an artifact which they do not already have an example of, which is in good condition, and/or which has a significant ties to the community. If you’re unsure what your local institution already has, give them a visit! Often their website will have good information for you about what types of artifacts they already have, but their physical location will always highlight the best and brightest artifacts they have. Plus, it’s a great way to spend a couple of hours.
In our case, it is relatively rare that we accept donations. While we always recommend that you contact us with your potential donations, we already have a wide array of artifacts. These artifacts are typically from Newfoundland, often from the very pharmacy our museum is housed in, and have no significant personal histories attached to them. For this reason, we are redirecting our accession efforts to look for artifacts from Labrador pharmacy history, and for items with great ties to Newfoundland & Labrador culture and people.
Still interested in donating?
If you’re still interested in donating, fantastic!
Below you’ll see a short guideline for how you should contact us, and what information you will need to attach to your donation enquiry. Generally, we need two things from you: clear photos, and a brief description of your item(s).
We would prefer that you email us about your items rather than attempting to bring them into the museum; this allows us time and space to evaluate your items, and also creates less of a physical burden on you. Regardless of whether we want to move forward with your donation we will email you back promptly, and if we do move forward we will give you more instructions at that point!
Step One: Photographing your donation
The most important part of your donation enquiry is the photos. We recommend you take one clear photo of each item you are planning to donate, framed like the photo below this paragraph. Essentially, think of it as taking a passport photo of your items. The item should be in-focus, against a neutral background, and in the middle of the frame. Hands or fingers should not be in the photo if at all possible.
This allows us here at the NLPM to survey your artifact’s condition to see if we are capable of caring for it. Severely damaged or poor-condition items are unfortunately out of our purview, as we do not have a conservationist on staff. We will also use these photos to compare your item to similar artifacts we might already have in our collection, to make an informed decision about whether or not it will fill a gap in the knowledge we’re trying to collect.
For example, if you are trying to donate a bottle of perfume that was bought from a local pharmacy in the 1960s, we will compare your item to the brands we already have in the collection. Does your item complete or add to a set we’re trying to piece back together? Is it an example of a new piece from the time period? Does it have a significant history that is connected to someone in our community? These are the types of questions we ask, for every item.
Step Two: Important Information
The second-most important part of your donation enquiry is the information you have about the items you are trying to donate. In your email, please provide a brief description of where you acquired the item, any significant personal history it might have, and a list of anyone else who may have owned the item, or where they may have been acquired. This part of the email can be very brief; if we decide to move forward with your donation, we’ll ask you for a more detailed account of what you know.
For example, we’ll link you to this ICH article about an artifact we acquired a couple of years ago. In this case, the appealing aspects of the artifact were: the artifact came from a prominent historical local home, it told a personal story, and was an example of an artifact type that is not well-represented within our collection. We have very few examples of historical condoms!
Step Three: Putting it All Together
Below, you will find an example of how you should format a donation enquiry. This is the best way for you to ensure that you get a quick response, as this email is formatted with exactly the information we need in exactly the right place!
Thank you for reading, and we hope to see you soon!