How does a museum acquire its collection? How is this relevant to you and me? These are the questions that I decided to answer. As a future museum professional, well, I thought this was a pretty important topic for me to acquaint myself with, and hopefully others will find it useful too.
So, how does a museum get its collection, then? I narrowed this down to what I believe to be the most widely occurring methods, based on what I have learned during two museum internships as an undergrad. Method number one: donations. The first internship that I ever did was locally, at the Amherst Museum, three years ago. They relied almost entirely, if not completely, on donations to grow their collection. With low funds and a very limited budget, they had no choice, really. They are dependent on the charity of others. This became apparent to me when I was working with the Collections Curator. While under her tutelage, I learned how to catalog and document new items. Part of this involved recording how the item was acquired; in every case it was through a donor.
This method has some pros and cons. On the positive side, you don’t have to spend any money. Also, you can get some pretty amazing pieces with fascinating backgrounds. Honestly, that’s all I could come up with for the pros. Now to the cons. You have absolutely no control over what you get. And that includes the quality of the item. Sure, it doesn’t mean that you have to display everything that you receive, but it gets tricky if you’re looking for a particular object. For example, while I was there, the Amherst Museum had this exhibit on the advancements in the home kitchen from the late 1700s to modernity. Well, what if the museum needed a coal-burning 1880s stove, a 1920s icebox, and a 1950s dishwasher? They would either have to cross their fingers and hope to get those objects, try to make do without, or scrap the entire project.
Now to the second collections-acquiring method: deliberate buying. My second museum-related internship was last January at Wells Fargo Historical Services in San Francisco. The nine Wells Fargo museums proudly document the history of the company as a stagecoach service to its transformation to the powerful bank that it is today, as well as give the context of the Gold Rush, and local, regional history. With, what seemed to me to be, endless funds and a large budget, Wells Fargo does not have to rely on donations. They can just go to buy whatever they want / need. They still do get donations, as I learned through an archival project I did; however, they can be very picky about what they accept, and appeared to have been just that. However, for the most part, Wells Fargo can say, “Hey, we should buy another historic stagecoach,” and they will go and buy one without hesitation. They can plan an exhibit first and then go and purchase the items that they need for it. They also make an effort to purchase anything that says Wells Fargo, as the countless pinball machines, wooden signs, and 50s-era toys in the office area will attest to. No financial concerns to worry their little heads about.
Now for the pros and cons, which I touched on a bit. Again, they can buy what they want, when they want it. This enables them to do larger, more varied exhibits than an institution of the Amherst Museum’s standing could do. As for cons? Well, you have to spend money. That’s really all I can come up with for that.
Okay, so that’s all fine and dandy, but how can I make it relevant to the everyday person? I thought about this long and hard before it struck me: by talking about my own, personal collections. Stay with me here. I reflected on my collections and how I acquired them and realized that my own collectibles were either deliberately purchased by myself or given to me by others, just like these two museums. Let’s discuss this further.
I have more collections than I can count but, for the purpose of this article and for the sake of my sanity, we will look at four of them; the ones that best make my point. First, we’ll look at my deliberately purchased collections. To start with: stuffed animals. Not just any stuffed animals; I’m very picky about them. I know that it seems like a pretty immature and childish collection, and perhaps it is, but I can’t help it. Whenever I go to a zoo, I always want to buy one. So I do. That’s sort of like my first rule: that I have to buy a stuffed animal whenever I go to a zoo and only when I go to a zoo. It keeps me from overdoing it, since I rarely have the time to go. I have only broken this rule once, at the San Francisco zoo, because, honestly, I had absolutely no room in either of my suitcases. I did buy a travel mug though. It’s very nice. Anywho, rule number two: it has to be a wild animal. What’s the point of getting a stuffed animal at a zoo if it’s something I can get anywhere? That plays into rule three: it has to be a unique animal, not one that’s readily available. No thank you, lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!); hello wombats, meerkats, and red pandas!
My second deliberately purchased collection is very small, but slowly growing: penny souvenirs. You know, when you go to some tourist destination and they have one of those machines that cost like 51 cents and they press your penny with a design. Yeah, I collect those. They’re a neat way to track all of the places you’ve been. They’re also a great way to lighten a wallet burdened with too many coins. I don’t really have any specific rules or guidelines. I just like them.
Now, for my donation-based collections. First up: snowmen. My mom and grandma are both collectors, which is, perhaps, where I got this borderline hoarding habit of mine. They, like me, have numerous collections. However, the ones that always stuck out to me as a kid were their winter / holiday-themed collections: angels for my grandma and Santa’s for my mom. I was jealous and I wanted my own so I decided on snowmen. My grandma let me pick out my first piece. After that, she continued to buy them for me, year after year, but I never again had a choice in what I got. I like the majority of my snowmen, but there are a few that I would have never picked out for myself. I keep hoping that they’ll “accidentally” break or get lost but, alas, the fates have not foretold it to be so.
My second completely and utterly, out of control, donation-based collection: rubber duckies. My mom got me a very plain, unassuming rubber ducky for a joke once, knowing my secret love for tacky décor. Then I somehow got two more. That was fine. I went to college with my three rubber duckies. One of my friends saw them and immediately concluded that I was obsessed with them. This is not true, though I now find it difficult to convince people of this fact. I like them just fine, but I am not, nor was I ever, nor will I ever be, “obsessed.” This one person decided to start buying me ducks for any and every occasion. Other people caught on, including my family. Suddenly my trio of ducks grew to a herd (gaggle?) of sixty+. I never spent a penny of my own money on my collection. I rarely picked out any of my ducks intentionally. Nevertheless, a massive collection I have.
So, with each of my collections, I find that I largely have the same pros and cons of each type. My own collecting habits are more similar to the collection-growing techniques of museums large and small than I had ever realized before. And I’m sure I am not alone in this. By discussing my own collections, perhaps I can make a personal connection for museum-goers and allow them to reflect on their own collections. We shall see…