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The Museum of Loaned Artifacts

Chatter from Museum Colleagues

Last week’s post about what to do with three handmade baptism gowns stirred some chatter from museum colleagues on social media, particularly LinkedIn. One colleague is trying to figure out what to do with his letterman’s jacket, which he said he would not accept for his own museum’s collection. Another wondered whether the sacrament of baptism will continue. And another, David Grabitske, who has written for my blog in the past, made a comment that inspired today’s post.

Here is a screen shot of his comment and my reply:

Screen shot of two LinkedIn comments taken September 12, 2021. First comment by David Grabitske, DBA: "This reminds me of Bob Herskovitz and his mission in the final years before retirement. He was driven to find ways to have artifacts stay in private hands, in the family if possible. For as much as our colleagues don’t want long term loans, lately I’ve been wondering if they might be a strategy for carrying out Bob’s mission." Reply by Mary Warner: "Bob was onto something there, David. We have done a few exhibits using short-term (1-year) loans and they have worked remarkably well. And you've just inspired a blog post idea, so stay tuned!"
Screen shot of two LinkedIn comments taken September 12, 2021. First comment by David Grabitske, DBA: “This reminds me of Bob Herskovitz and his mission in the final years before retirement. He was driven to find ways to have artifacts stay in private hands, in the family if possible. For as much as our colleagues don’t want long term loans, lately I’ve been wondering if they might be a strategy for carrying out Bob’s mission.”
Reply by Mary Warner: “Bob was onto something there, David. We have done a few exhibits using short-term (1-year) loans and they have worked remarkably well. And you’ve just inspired a blog post idea, so stay tuned!”

Bob Herskovitz served as the chief outreach conservator for the Minnesota Historical Society, starting in 1987 at the organization and creating its Conservation Outreach Program to provide technical assistance to museums, archives, and the public on how to care for artifacts and collections. He has since retired, but those of us who’ve been in the Minnesota museum field for some time were aware of Bob’s work through his site visits and the patient and practical advice he gave us. He had seen the good, bad, and ugly in terms of museum collections, so his drive to have artifacts (like my baptism gowns) stay in private hands was borne of this experience.

David’s suggestion of museums accepting artifacts on-loan as a strategy to achieve this is worth serious thought.

What would a museum look like if it had no collection of three-dimensional artifacts? (For the purposes of this thought experiment, I’m going to ignore archival materials, such as documents, ledgers, photos, and books.)

The Problem With Long-Term Artifact Loans

David is correct in saying that most of our museum colleagues are averse to long-term loans of items. It has certainly been the case at the museum I run, though I’d add that I’m only familiar with this feeling within the history museum field. I’m not sure how art museums view long-term loans.

There are several problems with long-term artifact loans. It’s too easy to lose track of loan agreements made long ago, when museum records tend to be sketchier; tracking down those who loaned items gets a lot more difficult the longer the loaned item is at a museum; and loaned items take up space that could be used for other artifacts.

Space at history museums is at a premium, so this last factor is not insignificant.

We had a pump organ on-loan for thirty years at my museum before the descendants of the person who loaned it showed up to claim it. That’s a long time to provide premium (temp & humidity-controlled!) free storage for an item, particularly because we had another organ in the collection.

Short-Term Artifact Loans – Several Examples

While long-term loans have a number of issues, what if a museum was set up to continually accept short-term loans, say, one-to-five years, for exhibits and programming?

My museum accidentally fell into using artifacts loaned on a short-term basis with an exhibit we did on aprons. We started the exhibit as we had others, by displaying the aprons we had in the collection. Visitors were so taken with the exhibit that they started bringing us aprons to add to the  exhibit. We did our best to keep track of which aprons belonged to which person loaning them. Because the exhibit was only up for about a year, we were able to get all the aprons back to their owners, though there were a couple of stray aprons that took a while to return, one of which we had trouble remembering the owner.

We tried the same short-term loan strategy, only intentionally, with our exhibit called “Saunter: On the Path of the Pedestrian,” which had shoes and other mobility-related items on display. For this exhibit, we started with artifacts from our collection and also asked visitors who were willing if we could take pictures of their shoes to add to our photo wall. Then, for our winter holiday event, we asked for loaned items to add to the exhibit. Because the loaned items were only with us for the holiday season – a very short-term loan! – we had no problem returning them to their owners.

For our “Central Minnesota Remembers Vietnam” exhibit, we went all-out on our exhibit using short-term (1-year) loaned artifacts. This was out of necessity because we have very few Vietnam War artifacts within the collection. Aside from about five items from the museum’s collection, every other artifact was loaned.

We created a more formal loan process for the exhibit because we were dealing with so many items and needed to capture the history of them more carefully. I created a loan permission form that we used to list items on-loan, the owner’s name and contact info, an alternate contact in case we couldn’t reach the owner, and a permission statement to allow us to use the items. I photographed every item as we accepted it and put these photos with the permission forms. I also took notes as I interviewed each person and added these to the permission form and photos.

Although I had taken photos as reference shots in order to remember which items belonged to each person, I eventually re-photographed every loaned item in a formal way so that I could create an exhibit guide. Because we were returning everything, we needed a way to more permanently document the exhibit, which is what the exhibit guide did.

With the thorough documentation, we had no problem returning loaned items to their proper owners, though one item lingered because the owner couldn’t pick it up right away.

For our 2019 exhibit, “The Story Behind the Tat: Tattoo Art in Central Minnesota,” we once again used short-term artifact loans, this time of tattoo equipment from area tattoo shops.

Along with covering the history of various tattoo shops, we wanted to share people’s tattoos and the meanings behind them. Attached as tattoos are, we couldn’t have people loaning us their tattoos or make them stand around as part of a museum exhibit for a year, so we took photos, as we did for the shoe exhibit, and gathered their stories, creating files to track everything.

We once again created a guide to document the tattoos and loaned items that were part of the exhibit. We also made an online version of the exhibit.

Benefits of a Museum Without an Artifact Collection

Because we have successfully managed several exhibits with artifacts on short-term loan, I can easily see a museum designed to share history exclusively through loaned artifacts, with no three-dimensional collections of its own. This museum would fit Bob’s vision of artifacts remaining in private hands because all of them would go home with the owners after documentation and programming.

Benefits of such a museum would be as follows:

  • No expenses related to long-term storage of artifacts.
  • No need for museum staff to disappoint people by not accepting their artifacts for the collection.
  • Not feeding the expectation that every donated item must be on display at all times (which is really terrible for artifacts, by the way).
  • No difficult decisions to be made about deaccessioning (culling items from the collection).
  • No temptation for people to use museums as above-ground landfills (because the stuff is too good for them to throw away, but they don’t have anywhere else to put it).

Museum staff would still be needed to document and track items that are on short-term loan, but because the items sought would be specific to an exhibit or program, limits could easily be placed on what comes through the door. None of this giant flood of items all at once.

Finally, a museum that uses loaned artifacts on a short-term basis would have a built-in mechanism for community engagement. In our experience, people who have contributed artifacts for a specific exhibit are excited to be part of the exhibit. Because the topic possibilities for exhibits and programming using short-term loans is limitless, new audiences could be asked to contribute, allowing for a greater diversity in those being served by the museum.

Surely, there’d be challenges to such a system, but it’d be interesting to see how it would play out in real life.

Thoughtful comments welcome.