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When a Museum Closes, What Happens to Its Collection?

After a 38-year run, the Powers Museum closed its doorways final yr. The tiny museum in Carthage, Mo., featured interval clothes and furnishings, newspaper clippings, letters and images to signify life on this rural southwest Missouri city from 1870 to 1940.

Instantly upon deciding to shut resulting from insurmountable funds points, nonetheless, board members of the Powers Museum discovered themselves dealing with a brand new problem: what to do with their assortment.

That assortment was largely the work of the late Marian Powers Winchester, who in 1981 left cash to construct a museum and an endowment to run it. However rising prices over time meant that the cash began to expire, says the museum’s final board president, Kavan Stull. Youthful folks “simply weren’t fascinated by what a butter churn appears like or the kind of footwear somebody wore in 1900,” says Mr. Stull.

Covid challenges

When a museum closes, the place to seek out new houses for its usually distinctive contents is a problem that many boards have needed to face in recent times, as budgetary constraints and extra monetary strains from Covid-19 and its protocols and lockdowns take their toll.

Usually, the worth, dimension and significance of a closed museum’s assortment dictate what occurs—whether or not it strikes as a complete or partially to different establishments or will get damaged up and offered to particular person consumers. The Philadelphia Historical past Museum, which closed in 2018 after years of declining attendance, is popping over its 130,000 artifacts of metropolis historical past to Drexel College. The two,000-piece assortment of arms and armor as soon as discovered within the Worcester, Mass.-based Higgins Armory, which closed in 2013, went to the close by Worcester Artwork Museum. In 2009, a lot of the now-defunct Roy Rogers & Dale Evans Museum in Branson, Mo., was offered at Christie’s for slightly below $3 million.

A show on the Harry S. Truman Birthplace Historic Web site, with gadgets donated from the shuttered Powers Museum.


Beth Bazal

Lesser-known collections are sometimes offered or donated piecemeal. The Powers assortment, for instance, was damaged up and donated to different establishments within the area. Furnishings went to a nonprofit in close by Joplin, Mo., that restores outdated homes. Articles of clothes had been transferred to the Joplin Mining Museum. An entranceway counter was given to the Harry S Truman Birthplace Historic Web site in Lamar, Mo. The show instances and bookshelves had been donated, respectively, to the Freedom of Flight Museum in Webb Metropolis and the Neosho Newton County Library. Images and newspaper clippings went to the library in Carthage.

“There additionally was a piano,” says Mr. Stull. “I offered it.”

Earlier than promoting or dispersing something, you will need to set up who truly owns the items. In a for-profit establishment, the founder probably is the proprietor and will do with gadgets as she or he chooses. In a nonprofit museum, it’s extra probably that objects belong to the establishment itself. There may be problems, for example, if a donated object entered a museum assortment with restrictions (comparable to, the piece have to be completely displayed or by no means offered). An object with restrictions isn’t thought of to be fully owned by the museum. To take away any restrictions, museum officers have to contact the donor, or go to courtroom if the donor is deceased.

Who’s the Proprietor?

Susana Smith Bautista,

who grew to become director of the Pasadena (California) Artwork Museum in 2017, started completely closing it the next yr. She says she “scrambled to search for paperwork” indicating how and when items got here into the museum’s assortment. “For the paintings the place we might both not discover any documentation, or the documentation didn’t require us to return it to the artist/donor,” she says, “we tried to consider museums that will most profit from these works, and so we approached them with the supply.”


How do you discover distinctive collectibles? Be a part of the dialog under.

When museums do put collections up on the market, it may be a possibility for particular person collectors. The Museum of Pinball in Banning, Calif., closed in 2021 and offered most of its assortment by means of public sale. Ms. Bautista recommends that collectors “keep near the collections that you’re fascinated by, and preserve private connections with curators and others associated to those museums” to remain forward of opponents for a similar objects.

Non-public consumers generally should purchase objects immediately from a museum that’s closing, notably if it owes cash and must promote gadgets to sq. its money owed. “A purchaser might name the manager director to ask about buying a number of gadgets,” says

Jason DeJonker,

a chapter legal professional on the legislation agency Bryan Cave’s Chicago workplace.

Mr. Grant is a author in Amherst, Mass. He may be reached at [email protected]

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