Ever since I’ve been at the museum, I’ve made it a priority to make sure we have gift agreements for all incoming items. After all, we don’t legally own the items unless we have the agreement, and agreements for some of our biggest collections are, uh…missing. You would think that rectifying this with current donations would be easy. In fact, it’s a pain in the butt.
Two painful routines dominate the process:
1. Donor walks in, without an appointment, carrying an item or (worse) a huge box of items. They are in a hurry. The car is still running in the parking lot. They’re very nice and tell us how authentic all of their stuff is, and, oh, they’re cleaning out their mother’s basement and the grand-kids don’t want the stuff anyway, they’d like to see if it could go where others can see it, thanks for taking this, I really have to go, bye. And they’re off, leaving us with a box of (probably) junk we don’t even legally own and maybe an oral history of some of it.
2. Donor calls or emails about donating a collection. We make an appointment. Donor brings in lots of boxes of generally nice stuff, which we carefully evaluate and decide we’ll accept. They’re very nice, and very happy we’re willing to display their family treasures. Their own interest in the collection is validated. We talk about about how Uncle Bob got the Indian dolls out West in 1953, the same trip where he met Aunt Flo at a little inn near Winslow. It becomes a great relationship. Finally, we produce a gift agreement and ask them to sign it, indicating they want to permanently donate the collection to us.
Well, what does this document mean? Why are they being asked to sign it? Do they need a lawyer?
Well, I want to say, do you hire a lawyer when you transfer the title of your car?
Honestly, I wouldn’t care if they did want a lawyer to look over the one-paragraph agreement that basically says you’re permanently and unconditionally transferring ownership of the items to the museum. We don’t accept conditional gifts of any kind, so it’s pretty easy. This isn’t PERSONAL, okay, it’s LEGAL.
I’m convinced that the real reason people don’t want to sign gift agreements is that they want the collections physically out of their houses but aren’t yet emotionally ready to let them go. They want to use the museum as a storage place for the collection, knowing that they were vague enough about the terms that they can come back someday and claim it–even if the chance of them actually doing that is small. Well, that’s very sweet, but it doesn’t fly. When you give something to us, it’s OURS. End of story. We’re not your second basement.
NOTE TO ALL POTENTIAL DONORS: BE PREPARED TO SIGN A GIFT AGREEMENT! If you are not prepared to sign a document that permanently, legally, and unconditionally transfers all objects and associated rights to us, don’t come in. Save us all some time.