Mystery at the Museum or “The Case of the Anonymous Doorstep Donation”

By Brandon Neal Jones, Registrar and Ammie Bryant, Museum Director

The Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History is truly grateful for every donation that furthers the mission of preserving Stillwater’s history, but donating to a museum is more than just dropping off your objects at the door. Did you know that your donation of objects requires a transfer of legal rights, also?  Every once in a while, a staff member or volunteer arrives at the museum to find objects left in our mailbox, or on our doorstep. In the museum world these objects have become known as “doorstep donations.” This might seem like a suitable way to make a donation to a museum’s collection, but this creates many issues for the museum. One of the biggest issues we face with these objects are the questions about the history of the item which includes:

  • Who owned and/or used it?
  • Where was it made and/or used?
  • What is the item’s significance to Stillwater’s history?
  • And finally, does this belong in our museum collection?

Recently, the Sheerar received donation of a U.S. government issue cartridge belt, which has the potential to become a cherished museum piece, but without documentation, we legally cannot do anything with it for one year. This means that we cannot display it; we cannot use it for educational purposes. Accordingly to Oklahoma’s laws, all we can do is keep it in storage for one year. Storage is an extremely valuable resource for all museums, and the Sheerar is no exception.

The Oklahoma Museums Association organized a task force in 2012 to create a set of guidelines for museums regarding unclaimed, undocumented, and abandoned property. Oklahoma’s abandoned property law does not address the unique circumstances that organizations like Museums face in dealing with this type of property; however, there are ethical guidelines all professional museums should try to follow. Keeping these ethics and the legal ramifications in mind, the OMA taskforce set guidelines for several scenarios of abandoned property. In the case of a doorstep donation they recommend that a museum should:

  • Document the abandonment of the property. This may include taking pictures of property in the location in which it was abandoned and recording pertinent data, such as where it was left, who found it, when it was found, any notes or information that was found with the property, and other information.
  • Generally, the museum may presume that an unsolicited item of property left at a museum from an unknown source is a gift if no one claims ownership within a year.
  • After a year passes, decide whether the property should be held as part of the museum’s permanent collection or whether the museum should dispose it.

The final point poses a new question – after a year passes, what now? Yes, according to the guidelines set by the OMA, we could potentially accession the object into our collection, but why?  What is this particular object’s story?

All of these questions and issues can be resolved very easily if a donor will take a few moments to fill out a gift agreement. The process is quick and easy and helps Museum staff and volunteers avoid expending scarce resources of time and space on items that might not be a good fit for the Museum’s mission. What makes the items in a museum’s collection most valuable are the stories that are connected to each item.  Once those are lost, they are irreplaceable and leave behind questions that will likely keep that item from ever being included in an exhibit telling Stillwater’s story.

We would love to consider the precious memories and objects that you may want to entrust to the Museum for Stillwater’s future generations, but help us by donating its story (and a quick legal document), too.

Of course, requests to remain anonymous will be fully respected.  If you want your donation to remain anonymous, just ask.

Potential donors should call the Museum office at 405-377-0359 or stop by during open business hours, Tuesday through Friday 11AM-5PM and Saturday and Sunday 1-4PM.  The Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History is located at 702 S. Duncan Street. Admission is free.  Find us on Facebook and Twitter: SheerarMuseum. On the web: sheerarmuseum.org.