Receiving donations at the Rhythm! Discovery Center, or any museum for that matter, might seem as trivial as a Goodwill donation under a different banner. In practice, however, it requires a thorough record-keeping apparatus as well as a long-term focus by staff and donors alike. In this article, I will walk through the donation process and shed some light on the reasoning behind the practices. Largely, the process can be thought of in four main phases: acquisition, documentation, storage, and publication. That said, the work in each phase will often overlap with others depending on the object in question.
The first stage of the donation process, acquisition, begins with initial correspondence. While there have been times where items are spontaneously dropped off at our door, potential donors will most often reach out to PAS to inquire about their intended donation. In the best of circumstances, we will talk over the history of the object, what, if any, ties it has directly to PAS, and under what circumstances the donor would like it conferred to us. We will often request pictures of the object as well as any and all information the donor might have related to the story of the object in regards to its use, its owners, and characteristics of the object that might make it unique from similar items. This information is important in determining how an object might fit into a collection and what its research and exhibition futures might look like. For example, if someone approached us about donating a marimba that was identical in model to something already in our possession, but had been played and maintained much longer through many owners, the object may have a valuable place in the collection to shed light on how long-term maintenance would change two objects of identical make.
Once this initial correspondence is over, the next step is to plan delivery of the object. As a small institution, this can take many forms, including standard shipping, contracted freight, or even picking up the object ourselves. Regardless of the method, once it is in our care at the museum, intake paperwork is filled out to begin recordkeeping for the object. The overall goal of recordkeeping with regards to objects is consistency of information and organization of the locations thereof.
Once the object is received, it is taken into temporary custody and issued a receipt showing we have done so. Temporary custody in terms of a museum usually indicates that the object has been taken into the care of the institution pending further action by one or more parties, with this most often being accession into the permanent collection. A temporary custody receipt includes a description of the object, notes about the condition, and information about the donor. This step is important as it is the beginning of the official record of the object that may be referenced later by museum staff.
The final step in the initial acquisition of an object is approval of the donation for accessioning by the executive board. In the case of R!DC, this is very often a formality based on staff recommendation. Once this takes place, an official deed of gift is issued, and the object is given a permanent identifier, known as an accession number.
Once the item is considered to have been permanently accessioned, all of the information from its temporary record is transferred to a permanent object record corresponding to the accession number. From here, there is a good bit of documentation completed within the first few weeks of having the object, including writing new descriptions, taking extensive photographs of the object, and assessing storage needs. A condition report is also filled out at this time to take stock of the physical condition of the object as we received it and make notes of any issues that might need further attention.
Once an object has been successfully documented, it is prepared for storage. An appropriate space on the shelves is found, and boxing or packaging needs are assessed. As was detailed in a previous post, often times we will make a custom box for an object to help preserve it and shield it from acute environmental changes.
The final step in the process is publication of the object record. Right now, this happens in batches whenever we have a good number of items to add to the public facing collection. Making the record public is one way in which the holdings of the museum can be accessed and used by researches from most locations.
Looking at this process as a whole, the overarching goal of each step is to ensure that records remain consistent and are cared for in the same manner as the object itself. It is our hope that these efforts will help preserve the objects and their context far beyond any individual’s tenure.