When and How to Donate to Museums


“This belongs in a museum”

It’s not just a turn of phrase: when you’re downsizing or sorting through a relative’s possessions, it’s not unusual to find documents or artifacts that need a new home, but which are old and without an obvious place to go.

I’m talking about those boxes of curious historical papers, books and paraphernalia, often collected over a lifetime of work and travel. They’re fascinating, with too much cultural value to discard.

This is when we might consider donating a collection to a museum or historical organisation.

Will the museum accept your donation?

There is never any guarantee, as it depends on so many things.

Museums have different types of collections and acquisition policies. They may already have similar examples to yours and no need to duplicate them. Or, they may simply not have enough space.

Still, when the alternative is sending items to the op shop or landfill, you have everything to gain by taking time to find out. Most of the larger ones have websites and some even have pages devoted to donations, so you can start by looking there.

Types of museum you can approach

There are many types of museum and organisation that may be interested in your collection. Here are the biggest categories.

The National Library of Australia holds a copy of every book published in Australia. If they don’t already have an old book and you have, they may be interested.

National museums house treasures of significant heritage interest. These may be paintings or unique objects, or papers that contribute to the story of Australia.

State and territory libraries collect books relevant to their location for public reference and research.

State and territory museums have collections of objects and paraphernalia, often relating to tourism in that location.

Regional museums and historical trusts offer one of the easiest options for donating a collection, as they are interested in local newspapers, tourist brochures, leaflets and booklets relating to the region’s events and local businesses.

Special interest museums are often interested in trade, transport or other specialist collections. One of my clients wanted to rehome her late father’s collection of publications and tools from the printing industry. We successfully identified a printing museum that was happy to accept the collection due to its significance.

How to approach a museum

Below are some useful guidelines for making a donation.

First, allow plenty of time – donations are not a speedy affair! Research the museum and learn what they are able to accept. Sometimes, this is determined by policy, physical space, audiences they work with, or even maintenance costs.

Even if your collection is suitable, a museum can take weeks or even months to look at your offer, depending on how often a committee meets, or simply because they are understaffed.

If a museum wishes to take your collection, it’s rare for them to buy it. However, many will cover the shipping costs.

For the larger state and national museums, you’ll need to complete online or printed paperwork. Finally, make sure you complete a Certificate of Donation from the ATO and ask the museum’s representative to sign it. This allows you to offset tax against the collection’s value under the Cultural Gifts Program.

Donating to museums can be a bit more involved than you expect. However, the rewards of seeing lovingly collected items find a new home where they’ll be appreciated makes it worthwhile.

Our experience with museums could save you hours of painstaking cataloguing and form-filling, so please do get in touch if you need help with this.

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