Should we accept this gift?

A month ago, a donor offered to buy the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum life-sized replicas of three dinosaur heads: Tyrannosaurus Rex, Allosaurus, and Velociraptor. This offer coincided with a decision to re-envision the display on our Sand Porch. The Sand Porch features a sand table with kinetic sand, which children love and play with for hours. It also features plants from various biomes, and bins of collections related to those biomes. Children barely notice the plants, and only attend to collections to bury them in the sand. So with the offer of these dinosaurs, we saw an opportunity to re-envision the Sand Porch display to show visitors things that get dug out of the earth: Dinosaur bones. Arrowheads. Fossils. This decision was supported by a conversation with our Teacher Team (a group of twelve classroom teachers who advise and work with us), who, without knowing about the offered donation, suggested that we should find artifacts such as arrowheads to support using the Sand Porch to teach about anthropology.

The Tyrannosaurus Rex arrived on Friday – too large in its packaging to fit through our door! We unwrapped it and brought it into a classroom, where it lives for the moment.

trex head

The T.Rex head in a PlayHouse classroom.

Now the same donor is offering us hundreds of amazing artifacts collected over a lifetime. Beautiful egg-shaped polished stones. Both real and fake fossils of crinoids and ammonites and other ancient species that I can’t even remember the name of. A giant shark tooth. Arrowheads and axe heads. Coral. All sorts of shells. Old glass bottles dug up from his backyard.

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Crinoid fossils

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Mineral collection

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A few of the fossils on offer

I want to say yes to every one of these, because they inspire wonder and awe in me, and I can imagine so many ways to use and display them that would inspire wonder and awe in children. But I wonder if there are ethical considerations I should keep in mind. These considerations, and my accompanying questions, are as follows:

We are not a collecting institution

I do not believe these are museum-quality pieces. And, to my understanding, they were offered first to a local collecting institution, which chose not to accept them. Also, the donor knows that we would use these for program purposes, allowing children to handle them.

That said, we certainly cannot accession them into a collection, conserve them, or store or display them in a climate controlled environment. Do we have an obligation to ensure that these are NOT museum-quality pieces? What else do we need to do to ensure that we are not disregarding any ethical considerations as put forth by AAM or EdCom?

We are a children’s museum, and children want to touch things

Sarah Schertz, who was interviewed for last week’s post, noted (in a passage edited out of the published interview) that teachers and students love the museum because “everything is made for them and they are supposed to interact with it…. which gives them the message that we value them and value their learning and their education, and that learning is important– people took the time to make a place that is just for them. They are encouraged to touch and interact and experience all of it.”

If we display the objects we are being offered, we will need put some behind glass, as they are too fragile to bear regular handling. For those available to touch, we will need to secure them in place and encourage children to touch them gently.

Will using real artifacts compromise the idea that this is a place “just for them”? Will it make them feel like the museum is less child-centric? 

When do gifts determine programming, instead of vice versa?

In accepting this gift, even if we do not accession the objects, we will be creating a new type of touchable collection, one that needs care and attention not needed by the plastic boats and dolls and wooden trains that populate our exhibits. And along with the opportunity to program around these artifacts is the obligation to program around and use them. What will we do with the beautiful egg-shaped stones? How can we use them to teach children about minerals? How will we use the shells, which are not from anywhere near Peoria?

The objects we want to put on display will require vitrines. It will likely take us years to raise money, design, and build appropriate cabinetry in areas where these objects might deepen understanding of existing exhibits.This may need to be the focus of our end-of-year fundraising drive, and will certainly require additional staff resources for fundraising and exhibit creation.

What are the implications of accepting a gift that might influence museum programming? Don’t all gifts – or nearly all – influence museum programming? What is the line between gifts that support existing initiatives and gifts that require new ones?

How do we inspire children to become “explorers and creators”?

The mission of the museum is:

The Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum provides children with the tools and inspiration they need to be explorers and creators of the world. We do this in part through understanding, supporting, and promoting play in the fullest sense of the word, one that includes imagination and creativity.

What is the role of artifacts in inspiring children to become explorers and creators? How do artifacts in cases co-exist with play? Do we risk “mission drift” in accepting these pieces?

So – should we accept this gift?

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5 thoughts on “Should we accept this gift?

  1. Dear Rebecca,
    These are very good and forward-thinking questions. I began my career as a curator of what was essentially a teaching collection so let me weigh in here:

    1. Have you established what the donor’s intentions are in giving the gift? Is he/she willing to donate the gift without restrictions so that in the future the museum is not beholden to a donor’s wishes? Whatever you decide, I strongly suggest the museum only accept the gift without any restrictions and that includes future sale or donation. Under these circumstances the donor might wish to retain certain objects for their own use or donation to another institution and that’s fine. Just be very clear on the terms of the gift. I am sure you can get a copy of a sample gift letter from AAM or Midwestern Museums Association.

    2. I suspect there is nothing in the collection that is of scientific value, meaning that the specimens were collected as part of a scientific research project and have associated data about where, when and how it was collected. If you are unsure of this, or if the donor believes certain specimens are of scientific importance then ask the curator of paleontology at the Burpee Museum of Natural History or the Field Museum. I am sure they would be very glad to examine the collection for you.

    3. Assuming that the donor has no expectations that the collection will remain intact in perpetuity, remain on display or have any other conditions that would prevent the museum from using the collection to serve its mission, and assuming that nothing in the collection is of scientific value and should be placed in a scientific repository such as Burpee or Field, you can I believe proceed with using the collection as a teaching/education collection. You might want to create an Excel spread sheet to make it easier to sort through the material, but a teaching collection does not need to be accessioned per se (because you are not going to be keeping it forever) In fact, you may want to consider that a teaching collection is expendable and therefore can be touched.

    4. Teaching collections are great and can be used as the basis of discovery boxes and, as you have suggested, be part of displays. I am not sure I understand the concern about the pieces being fragile and therefore untouchable. Is there concern that pieces would get broken or stolen? Are there pieces that are too large or heavy and would pose a threat if dropped on a toe or foot? Are the pieces so small that they might find their way into a nose or ear? I would be more concerned about safety of visitors rather than protection of the objects. Again, if they are so valuable as to need high security and expensive cases that you don’t have, then I would pass on the gift (unless the donor wants to pay for cases or you can get used cases from another museum).

    5. I agree with your concern that introducing non-touchable object into a place where everything else is touchable needs some thought. I am sure Indianapolis Children’s Museum has dealt with this issue, as they are essentially the region’s natural history museum as well. I guess I would err on letting everything be touchable and, since you have already established that the objects are teaching objects, you should not feel that you have to treat them with (white) gloves. You could contact the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) who could give you advice on the best way to anchor objects to display boards so that the specimens are not damaged or made unusable in the future because of insoluble glues.

    6. In short, teaching collections should be cared for of course, but not to the extent of a permanent museum collection, especially for which the museum has no resources or funds. If the museum and its community have a strong desire to expand the museum’s focus to include natural history, the collection being offered provides a wonderful way of doing that. There are so many ways the collection could be used interactively to introduce young minds to nature and the skills necessary to learn about nature my mind is reeling with ideas for you!

    Sorry this is long, but hope it is helpful.

    Carol Bossert

  2. I agree with a lot of what Carol said above, and would only add that it might be possible to say ‘yes’ to some things and not to others; things which can and do immediately support your current programs and planning are easy ‘yes’ objects, things which for whatever reason are more problematic could be a ‘not yet’ if not an outright ‘no.’ If you’re worried about offending the donor, you can also suggest alternate places that might be able to use what you can’t: schools, public libraries, etc.

  3. Imagine that you had everything offered already in programs. Would that provide something substantive that you don’t know have? Do? Museum collections are not free, they take time to care for and that translates into money. Since you are a museum, you are obliged to have both intellectual and physical control over the objects — doing that takes time and money. And, if you find material that is of scientific importance, you will need to have a place to store it properly and a way to make it accessible.

  4. Thank you all for these comments! This conversation, along with comments in LinkedIn, led me to talk to the donor and determine the following:

    (1) He will present us with a catalog/checklist of the collection indicating what objects are and their value, so we know exactly what we are getting.
    (2) He very much wants kids to be able to touch things, and doesn’t mind if this means that the objects deteriorate – this is why he wants them in a children’s museum
    (3) He will give $10,000 toward costs related to storing and using these objects
    (4) We can sell any objects we cannot use after 2017

    With this in mind, we are moving forward with a letter of agreement, and working on creating a “discovery zone” in an underutliized space next to our sand porch, where kids can touch many of these artifacts. I would like this space to convey two big ideas: (1) digging in the earth is a way to find out more about the history of people and our planet, and (2) this collector, John, started his collection at age 5 by digging in his backyard – kids might find great things while playing outside.

    Because the collector wants kids to touch everything even if this means that they deteriorate, I am imagining that this space will only last for a few years before it needs to be rethought (if we are out of artifacts) – like an extended temporary collection.

    Given that we are not accessioning these artifacts, and they are not museum grade, are there any ethical problems with letting them be extensively handled by visitors? And does anyone know a young exhibit designer / recent graduate in exhibit design who would be interested in taking on this project (we expect to have $5000 plus travel expenses to offer)?

  5. I would ask the donor how he obtained these fossils. If your museum doesn’t have an ethical collections policy, then I’d advise your museum to have one or at least some important key principles which you can abide with until a policy has been discussed and approved. Policy should cover any type of donations given by public from museum-grade, these type of objects to money. Advertise for any free cabinets from other museums, especially if you think you may not need the cabinets on a long-term basis. I was going to suggest speaking to your donor about making a contribution towards new cabinets but he’s already offered that. I am not a collections-handling expert but if the donor has stipulated that he would like children to handle them and that is his reason for his donation, then I shouldn’t be too concerned. I would still train your staff to assist children in handling any large items as well as touching them. An excellent reason for doing facilitated sessions as well as leaving them to it.

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