Donating Gifts to Museums and Art Galleries

Thinking about donating gifts to Museums and Galleries?

As a follow up to the ‘Preserving Memories’ series, I have asked the Victoria Gallery & Museum’s Fine Art Curator Moira Lindsay to write a piece about the process of donation of ephemera, artwork and objects.

Owners need to understand the implications of a gift or sale to a collection, and the difference between it (‘an acquisition’) and a loan. Loans are generally for specific periods of time and purpose (e.g. for an exhibition) after which they return to the owner. Collections are discouraged from considering long or indefinite loans. An acquisition is a permanent transfer to the collection.

Many museums have collection development policies outlining their purpose, and acquisition, management and disposal of objects. An overview of the existing collection, and policies on areas the collection wishes to develop (eg objects by a particular maker), ensure a clear long-term vision for the collection.

Museums consider the intentions of the owner, any conditions or requests attached, and most importantly whether the collection is the best place for that object. Staff may consider:

  1. If the object fits with their development policy
  2. If the object is museum-quality
  3. Whether it duplicates similar items already in the collection or region
  4. Whether any special storage or conservation needs are required (and if they can meet them)


Many people do not realise the size of collections, displays are rotated, but objects may spend a lot of time in storage. Storage does not imply the object is unwanted. Collections are not just used for permanent display (and in some cases permanent display will damage them), but also for research by collections staff, visiting research staff and students and interested members of the public. By donating an object to a public collection it means that the object is accessible to far more people.

In the event of queries over ownership the collection may ask the donor to provide evidence of ownership or provenance before acquisition. Issues such as excavation rights, export or spoliation of works of art during the Nazi, Holocaust and WWII period, may need to be investigated. There may also be biological factors to check before a collection can physically receive an object, and in terms of photography this would apply to cellulose nitrate film which is highly flammable.

When an object is accepted paperwork including ‘transfer of title’ will be completed, and a copy passed to the donor. The object can then be accessioned into the collection. Accessioning is the formal addition of an object to a collection and includes giving it a unique number and recording its details in an accessions register.

Museums and galleries will always try with some notice to make collections accessible to members of the public (including donors). They should also have documentation for the object within the collection, e.g. in an object file or a database record.

There could be the odd occasion where a donor may want to ‘borrow’ an object, generally this would not be possible, unless it was specified and agreed at the point of acquisition. For e.g. the acquisition of medals from a living donor who wishes to wear them on occasion. This may seem a reasonable request, however, as soon as the medals are lent to that donor, the museum cannot control what happens to the object in the same way that it can when it is within its care, e.g. in terms of security or damage or theft. There will be instances where it is possible to lend an object back to a donor, but it needs to be carefully planned at the point of acquisition. Donors need to think carefully about donating gifts and the implications such a gift would have on themselves and their family at large, because once it is given it cannot be returned.

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