The New-York Historical Society Museum wants a wedding cake topper. Not just any cake topper: a same-sex version with two men or two women that speaks to the titanic shift in American culture that happened when gay marriage was legalized at the federal level in 2015.
So if we’re so eager, why not just buy one? Because simply procuring any old cake topper isn’t the point. We want one that comes with a history attached it, a tale of a couple who share a love supreme and legal rights that were hard-won.
When we add to the Museum’s permanent collection, we’re not just acquiring objects, papers, or artwork. We’re collecting stories.
This is one of the main tenets of collecting at the Museum. And it’s something to keep in mind if you’re ever thinking about offering something for donation. How do you donate? And what happens once that process starts? Below, a primer.
In the old days of New-York Historical, we were the only collecting institution in town, beating the Metropolitan Museum of Art by nearly 70 years. So it wasn’t unusual for staff to come to work in the morning and be greeted by trunks full of papers or objects that had been left overnight.
Now, we’re a little more selective and lot more rigorous. Most donations to the Museum start with an email to the curatorial department at firstname.lastname@example.org. (If you’re looking to donate to the Patricia D. Klingenstein’s Library, you can find their guidelines here.) We get about 5-15 such inquiries a week for a variety of reasons. Maybe someone is cleaning out their attic and found a collection of old political campaign buttons. Maybe a general contractor is working on a building and wants to preserve some historical element that’s being removed. Maybe someone’s great-grandmother has passed away, and they’re clearing out her house of her (possibly) priceless art.
Occasionally, people are even inspired by New-York Historical exhibitions. When we started publicizing last summer’s Stonewall 50 at New-York Historical Society for instance, we heard from people who’d been involved in LGBTQ nightlife or civil-rights organizations from the 1970s onward and wanted to offer up such memorabilia as pin-back buttons, membership cards, flyers, and photographs, precious artifacts of the more recent past. And when we announced the opening of the current show Artist in Exile: The Visual Diary of the Baroness Hyde de Neuville, several people came forward and offered to make a gift of previously undocumented Baroness drawings from the early 19th century.
Whatever the reason for the outreach, we ask for a photo and a brief description of the artifact with some sense of its story and background. The email is then forwarded to a curator who specializes in that department (paintings, drawings, decorative arts, material culture, or photographs, for instance.)
Before you write about your heirloom, however, keep in mind that there are a couple of things we can’t do. First, we can’t do appraisals or in any way help you estimate what an object is worth. And second, we can’t help you authenticate a piece. Think your aunt’s oil-on-canvas landscape is a genuine Thomas Cole? We can’t help you there.
How We Get to ‘Yes’
If a donation is what you have in mind though, and a curator is interested, they’ll reply to your initial message and ask for more information. They’re trying to determine several things:
- What kind of condition is it in?
- Do we have the expertise and resources to conserve, maintain, and store it?
- Can we exhibit it in the future?
- Does the object help tell a story about New York City’s past or present?
We don’t have the resources to accept certain objects, and we never take anything that we don’t think we can take care of properly. We generally say “no” to exceedingly large artifacts—think pianos or big architectural elements like fireplaces—because we don’t have the storage space or facilities to exhibit them.
Another item we frequently decline: clothing. (Although, as always, we make exceptions for pieces with extraordinary stories or significance.) We’re routinely offered items like heirloom wedding dresses, for instance, but they require the kind of specialized storage that we simply can’t provide. What we can do is offer recommendations—especially if we think an item is better suited for another institution.
If after these conversations, the curator is still interested, we make arrangements to bring the object itself to New-York Historical in a process that gives us temporary custody in which the donor is provided a temporary receipt.
Sealing the Deal
The object remains on loan to us while a larger group called the Acquisition and Loan Committee—made up of curators, conservators, and librarians—makes its final determination. The original curator presents their case at the committee’s monthly meeting. Once that committee approves, the proposal is sent to the Collections Committee of our Board of Trustees. And once they approve, it becomes official: The donor fills out a deed of gift, and we formally take it into our collection.
What does the donor get in return? First, they can pick the object’s credit line—either their own name or in honor of someone—so the piece always has that association. But more importantly, they have the satisfaction of knowing that a treasured object—and the story that goes with it—will be preserved for generations to come.