Inside the Collection

Donating to the MAAS collection

Ever wondered how to donate to a museum? Curator Tilly Boleyn reveals what to consider before you get in touch.

A long corridor with shelving units running down each side. Each unit has lots of objects stored on each shelf.
The Ultimo Collection Store. Photo: Sarah Reeves, MAAS

Spring is a busy time. Flowers are blooming, lambs are frolicking and people are clearing out their sheds thinking, “I wonder if I should donate this to a museum?”.

Each year around this time and throughout the holiday period, offers of donations spike as people, faced with the imminent arrival of their extended families, contact us with generous offers of donation.

I’m here to guide you through what you need to consider before getting in touch and what to expect once you do.

What is MAAS looking to collect?

The Museum has a vast and diverse collection of around 500,000 objects. As with all large collecting institutions, the Museum’s collection’s focus has shifted throughout that time due to changes in prevailing social forces and deliberate planning by the Museum team.

So while we continue to maintain our vast and diverse collection, the Museum’s collecting priorities are framed generally by the Museum’s Strategic Plan and more specifically by the Collection Development Policy.

What does that mean?

Oh, you don’t want to read through those 30 pages of policy and planning documents? Okay, here is a brief summary.

When the Museum acquires something we are committing to keep and care for it forever. We have limited space so difficult decisions need to be made about what we agree to keep in the collection.

Accepting the donation of an object into the collection is not a decision taken lightly, it is guided by collection development frameworks that set out what our collecting priorities are at any point in time. Currently the broad areas of focus include: technologies, design, science, engineering, fashion, architecture, contemporary culture, health and medicine. Generally speaking, if the object you’re looking to donate falls within any of those areas, you’re off to a good start.

Hat finials or knobs, MAAS collection 2018/22/1. Gift of Judith and Ken Rutherford, 2018. Photo: Ryan Hernandez, MAAS

How do I offer to donate things to the Museum?

First, it’s a good idea to check the existing collection using our online collection search to make sure we don’t already have the exact object you’re thinking about donating. It’s unlikely we will be able to accept your offer if we already have an example in the collection, unless your object is in better condition or builds on the collection in terms of the story it can be used to tell.

Before you contact us about your donation offer you’ll need to do a bit of detective work. The information and photographs you send to us are a critical part of our assessment process. The types of information that help us make a decision include:

  • History of the object — Can you tell us about the life of this object and any personal stories of the people connected to it?
  • Provenance of the object — Do you know who made this object, when they made it and the history of its ownership since it was made?
  • Condition of the object — Is it complete? Has it been altered? Is there any damage? What are its dimensions?
  • Photographs of the object — These images should be clear and show as much detail as possible e.g. show labels, brand names, packaging, model numbers and any areas of damage.

Once you gather together all this information and photographs you can send them to the Museum via email or post. Please do not send us the object!

Perfectly round silver sphere held by small plastic feet.
One kilogram silicon sphere made at CSIRO by Achim Leistner for the Avogadro Project, MAAS Collection 2016/32/1. Gift of Achim Leistner, 2016. Photo: Michael Myers, MAAS.

Who decides what objects join the collection?

Any potential acquisitions are initially assessed on a case-by-case basis by the Museum’s curators. If the donation looks promising the curator will build a case recommending the object for acquisition into the Museum’s collection. This can be an extensive process of research, documentation and review that can take months. This is really the start of a conversation with you and the curator responsible. They may contact you to ask more questions about the object and its history.

“Each object collected will have significance to past or present Australian society within a global context, reflecting important innovations, changes, themes and processes in material culture with regard to one or more of the following criteria: design, scientific, research, historic, cultural and aesthetic”

The final decision about the fate of objects offered to the Museum sits with MAAS’s Collection Development Review Committee. This group reviews all objects proposed by curators and makes a decision after considering a number of factors like the provenance and authenticity of the objects, and their condition, as well as care and storage requirements.

So what happens next?

If your donation is approved by the committee we will get in touch to let you know. You’ll receive a letter of thanks and your donation will be officially accepted into the Museum’s collection!

As you can see, the process is thorough and takes time, but it ensures we build and maintain a world-class collection for generations to come.

Written by Tilly Boleyn, Curator, October 2018

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