Part IX: Donating Items From Your Family Archive
By Rachel Smith
While you were organizing your family archive, you may have come across some items which you and your family are no longer interested in keeping. You might be thinking of donating them to a museum, historic society, or archive. In most cases, you cannot walk into these institutions, tell the person at the front desk “I’m donating this photograph album”, and simply walk away.
How can you prepare one or more items from your family archive to donate to a public institution? In addition to some forms you may be asked to fill out, there is some research that you should do prior to your donation.
Research Your Ancestors and Artifact(s)
What makes artifacts like a butter churn or a portrait photograph interesting to a museum is not just the object itself, but the stories of the people and events behind them.
The first thing you should do is to collect as much information as you can about your ancestor or family who owned, made, or are depicted in the item(s) you want to donate. The research materials you need, such as letters, photographs, newspaper articles, obituaries, diaries, genealogical charts, and family bibles, may already be present in your family archive. You should aim to answer such basic genealogical questions as: birth, death, marriage, children, where they lived, and their occupation.
There are some additional questions about your ancestor(s) you can answer as well:
- Was your ancestor well known in their community, career, or avocation?
- Did they serve in the military?
- Did they have any connections to well-known people, events, or places?
- Did the local newspaper publish any articles about them?
After you have recorded this information, you should try to research information about the artifact(s) you are interested in donating. In your investigation, you should try to identify the basic who, what, when, and where about the item:
- What is the item? Who/where/when was it created? Who owned this item (a history of ownership)?
- What condition is it in?
- Are there any interesting stories associated with this item? Was it used at specific holidays, events, or special occasions?
- For photographs:with a blue photo pencil or #2 pencil, mark the information that you know on the back: people, places, dates (exact or estimated), photographer, events.
- For correspondence: take notes on the writer, recipient, date, and subject of letter(s).
- For documents: take notes on what it is, people and places referenced, dates, and historic significance.
If you do not know the exact date or year when a photograph or item was created, using “circa” or its abbreviation “ca.” for an estimated date (ex: ca. 1932), or a range of dates (ex. 1900-1910) will be more helpful than no information at all.
Staff and volunteers will greatly appreciate any information or stories you can provide about the items you are donating. You are the experts on your family’s collection and we want to know as much as you do! Once you have collected and recorded this information, you can start doing research on where to donate your artifacts or photographs.
Where Can I Donate?
Generally, it is best to donate items from your family archive to institutions in the place where your family member(s) lived or where the item was created or used. These institutions can include museums, archives, libraries, or historic societies, and may be dedicated to a town, city, or county. At the Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center, we are excited to collect items related to the people and history of Fremont County. Even if you have lived in Fremont County for most of your life and your great-grandmother lived in Rochester, New York, the letters that she wrote would fit in better at a museum there.
If you don’t know where an item was used or if your relative lived in multiple places, it is best to donate it to an institution in a place where your ancestor lived the longest. Organizations which already have items or a collection from your family may be more inclined to accept your donation.
You are also not just limited to donating your artifacts to local-level institutions! Here are some other places you may want to consider donating your item(s):
- Regional, state, and national historic societies and museums (ex. History Colorado: Denver, Colorado)
- University libraries and museums
- Houses of worship
- Clubs, fraternities, or sororities – especially local-level organizations
- Military museums (ex: National WWI Museum and Memorial: Kansas City, MO)
- Occupational museums (ex: Fred Harvey Museum: Leavenworth, KS and National Museum of Industrial History: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania)
- Ethnic and cultural museums (ex: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library: Cedar Rapids, IA and National Museum of African American History & Culture: Washington, D.C.)
Please contact an institution in advance before mailing them a potential donation. Most organizations will ask you to fill out a collection or donation survey and/or a deed of gift beforehand. Some museums, especially large ones, have a large backlog of donation requests to process, so you should anticipate hearing back from them anywhere between a week and a month as to whether or not they want you to send your donation. Also keep in mind that some small museums operate on a seasonal basis and are typically closed in the winter.
If the museum or institution you contact is unable to accept your artifact(s), you can ask them if they can recommend any other institutions who may be interested. They may be able to direct you to a place that is an even better fit!
If you are not ready to or interested in donating with your family photographs or documents, but you would like for them to be available at a local museum for research or exhibition purposes, some museums offer what is referred to as a loan for duplication. This is a practice that we do at the RGRMHC – someone will sign an agreement to loan us a small collection of photographs and documents (typically up to 100 small items or 1-2 photograph albums) for a limited amount of time. During the loan period, our staff will scan and create catalog records for the digitized images, making those part of our permanent collection. Then we will contact the loaner to come and pick up the original items. It’s an excellent way to increase the reach and access to your family’s archive without having to part with it.
This is the last blog in the “Help! I’m the Family Archivist!” series! Thank you very much for reading along. Please feel free to comment on the blog posts or reach out to the museum if you have any questions about curating and preserving your own family archive.