When to pitch old, family historical, objects and when to donate them…

I love history and that lends itself to liking old stuff, antiques, vintage finds, etc. I find that many old, dirty, rusty, etc. objects have tremendous possibilities. They just need some work. Many old objects tell a story. We can learn a lot about a person, process, community, business, events, etc. by exploring historical objects such as photos, books, records, business ledgers, newspapers, and that list can go on and on.

However, for many, these objects are personal. They tell a story of family life, family business, relationships, ownership of buildings, farms, etc. I love family history and work to build family trees, seek out family photos, and I have special collections of family heirlooms such as silverware that belonged to my great, great grandmother and great grandmother. These items have great meaning to me. However, not all old objects have meaning and not all old objects can be or should be saved/preserved.

As a curator for our local historical society, I have worked for over 10 years helping to sort, clean, develop collections, research, and build records for our historical museum. We are also in the process of moving the museum, which is just as stressful as moving from one home to another. It is amazing what you find in a move.

I have a Masters of Arts in American History and also spent part of that degree in studying archival theory and practices which provides me with knowledge on how to care, study, and organize collections of objects. In the role of the curator, I often get asked to appraise objects for tax write-offs, which I cannot do or I get asked if I will take grandma’s piano because none of the grandkids want it. Neither of these are my role, nor the role of any historical institution. So, if you are doing dealing with old family objects or having to downsize grandma’s house, here are a few pointers:

  • If you have no idea what it is, how it was used, why it is there, nor can figure out who is all in the pictures, and you don’t really care, do not keep these items. If you cannot explain them to anyone else, don’t try to pawn them off on others nor drop them at the historical society. If you care enough to keep them, then find out who or what it is. Do the research, ask family members, figure out the family tree.
  • Not all objects should be saved. They don’t all tell a story. So, don’t try to assign meaning to objects that are not of value or use to anyone. Just because your grandpa kept old mental tins, and no one wants them, get rid of them. They don’t have historical value or family historical value, then throw them out.
  • You can tell family “no”. The biggest challenge for the historical museum is the fact that it has served as a space for families do drop family objects that they do not want but feel better telling grandma/grandpa that they donated the object to the local historical organization.
  • Today, I see a lot of my friends being pressured by older generations to keep everything. The sofa that belonged to their great-great grandma is being guilt-ed into their homes by loving grandparents. However, this sofa has no personal connection to them, they never knew their great-great grandmother, and besides that, their kids can use it, it needs a ton of work, and it matches nothing. In that case, call on a local historical organization to come take a look at it and then it may find a home there or it may be pass fixing and it needs to be sold or thrown out.
  • If you are making a donation that is being accepted by a historical organization, then a financial donation should go with it. Each object needs to be filed, cleaned, cared for, boxed, etc. Archival paper products are expensive. $20 per clothing box is the standard. Most historical organizations are operating on small budgets, so this should be a standard aspect of a donation.
  • If making a donation to a historical organization, make sure the object is a good fit with that organization. Our local historical museum focuses on local history, so when people try to donate items about people, places, events, things that are not relevant to the county, I have to turn them down.
  • Know about the object, be able help tell its story. As a curator, love learning about objects and understanding how they were used and by whom. But there is many objects and documents, that I need your help with to understand their story. I find boxes and boxes of small objects, books, papers, photos, etc. If you are donating items, make sure to write out what is being donated, the history of the items, how they connect to local history. Help tell the story. This helps me use the objects in exhibits to tell an even bigger, community based history.

These are just a few tips and thoughts. I love history and I love working with objects and papers. It is always a treasure hunt. You never know what you might find or learn. I hope you will seek out historical understanding for your family objects/photos. But if you are going to pass them on to others or donate them, please consider writing out their history and making a donation. If you care enough about the object, help tell its story. This is how history lives on.


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