Clock with folding wood base that appears to be falling apart, 2019.
history museums pragmatic historian

Should Museums Charge a Tipping Fee?

This post is likely to ruffle a few feathers. Let’s ruffle away, shall we?

(If you are a donor to museum collections and you’d like to avoid the ruffling, see the caveat at the end of this post.)

“If You Don’t Take It, It Will End Up in a Landfill”

I can’t tell you how many times people who’ve donated items for museum collections have said, “If you don’t take it, it will end up in a landfill,” or “I would feel bad taking this to a landfill,” or something similar.

Huh. For some people*, museums rate just a bit higher than a local landfill in terms of being a place to get rid of unwanted stuff.

Mostly, museums rate higher only in that they assuage the collections donor’s guilt. If it’s at a museum, well, at least it’s not taking up space at a landfill.

Only, now these items are taking up space at a museum. If we decide to accept them, that is. (We mostly have a choice in whether items get accepted, unless someone drops an item and runs, which happens.)

The Costs of Museums Taking Care of Items FOREVER

Once museums formally accept items for the collection, we are pretty much tasked with keeping them FOREVER.

The last time I checked, FOREVER was a mighty long time.

And there are costs, plenty of costs, associated with keeping an item in a collection FOREVER.

Museums, if they are operating at professional standards, have environmental controls on temperature, humidity, and light.

We have special, archivally-safe boxes for storing items.

We have staff to catalog and care for items, along with doing research on items and sharing their history with the public through exhibits, publications, programs, and the web.

These things don’t come cheap.

If You’d Pay a Landfill to Take Your Stuff, Why Not Pay a Museum?

The irony in this situation is that those who tend to make landfill-related comments are usually willing to pay a tipping fee to dump their stuff at a landfill. Yet, they don’t see the costs for a museum to care for their items FOREVER.

To them, a museum is a “free” place to tip their unwanted stuff. Better yet, they can take a tax deduction on the value of their stuff if they give it to a nonprofit museum.

Perhaps museums are doing this all wrong.

Most museums are woefully short on funds and staff, doing incredible work to care for collections on shoestring budgets.

Perhaps we need to charge a tipping fee, just like landfills do, so that people understand the value of the work we do and the costs that go into caring for our collections.

A tipping fee would be a new source of revenue for museums. It might also staunch the massive volume of items offered to museums.

Yes, there would be downsides to a tipping fee, but we could hash those out and work to mitigate them.

Let’s dream of a day when people are as willing to support museums as they are landfills.


*Caveat: I’m not talking about everyone who donates collections items to a museum.

Many people are very thoughtful about what they bring for a collection.

– They call ahead and ask first.

– They are willing to retrieve items that the museum determines won’t fit the collection.

– They become members of the museum and/or support the museum’s work through financial donations.

– They bring items to a museum with the primary thought that they are trying to save important history, not just dump old stuff they no longer want.

Be like the thoughtful collections donors. Support your local museum and resist the urge to treat it like a free, above-ground landfill.


3 thoughts on “Should Museums Charge a Tipping Fee?”


    1. Was that in 2005, at the Minnesota History Center? They had a display on weddings and wedding dresses. I went to see it in the spring, while my then fiance was in boot camp.

  2. Nancy – I used to think museums should avoid loans at all cost, just because too much could potentially happen to a loaned item while in the custody of museums. I’ve changed my thinking on this after experiencing the rapidly shrinking collections storage space in so many museums. In the last few years, we’ve taken short-term (1-year) loans of items for exhibits, keeping detailed records of who brought what, in order to create exhibits that we don’t have collections items for. It has worked very well, allowing us to tell stories with artifacts we don’t own, but also letting people keep ownership of items.


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