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We Don't Want Your Donation

Edward Shaddow in GLAM Blog Club, Donation, GLAM, Museums, Libraries

GLAM Blog Club's theme this month is Donation which instantly sent shivers up my spine thinking about all the terrible books people bring into the (public) library to donate. As Hugh's example shows, it's often the things we don't put into our collections that make a library. In my own professional life I have seen two types of librarians in regards to donations. One being the accept almost everything librarian, and the other decline's almost everything. I am of the latter persuasion. In one workplace I actively had to weed the donation shelf before my librarian could get to it otherwise they would just add everything to the collection. I would turn two full shelves of donations into a pile of maybe three items.

While these examples of 'thanks but no thanks' are small and occur everyday, I started to think about the impact of saying no to larger donations. Do GLAMs do it? Why would we do it, and should we do it? These thoughts came up during Alice Procter's talk that I wrote about previously. She discussed provenience and how museums and galleries were reluctant to say where items came from, especially when their items were stollen or illegally acquired. The example Alice cited that prompted this line of questioning was the British Museum's 'acquisition' of the Easter Island moai, Hoa Hakananai’a. The moai was stolen (or 'taken without permission' if you want to be colonially correct <insert eye roll>) in 1868 by the British frigate HMS Topaze, captained by Richard Powell, and then given to Queen Victoria as a gift. Not knowing what to do with it, Queen Victoria 'donated' it to the British Museum.

If you read the British Museum's catalogue record of Hoa Hakananai'a there is no mention of the traditional owners, that it was stolen, or the fact that Queen Victoria had no right to donate something that didn't belong to her. In fact the acquisition notes read:

Collected during the HMS Topaze expedition to Rapa Nui (captained by Powell) in 1868 and presented to Queen Victoria by the Lords of the Admiralty. She then gifted it to the British Museum in 1869.

The question I would pose today is, if someone stole an artifact, gifted it to someone else who then donated it to a museum, would the museum accept it once the provenance was investigated? In my mind there is no excuse for keeping the moai or any other stolen item, especially when the traditional owners are demanding their return.

Looking ever wider than individual collection items Alice mentioned something that struck me, something I had never considered before. When discussing creating safe spaces in museums for First Nation peoples one of the considerations was the names on museum wings. What if the person who donated money for the collection space was an opponent to First Nation rights? While it could be difficult to deal with an existing space would museums actively turn down a large 'problematic' donation?

A recent example of this is from the Girl Scouts of Western Washington who received a $100k donation with an anti-trans stipulation. The Girl Scouts returned the donation and then used the refusal to help fundraise around $300k in donations without stipulations. I honestly hope that a GLAM organisation faced with a similar situation would do the same.

Usually people who donate items to GLAMs do so with a good intention. Be it that they want to save books, help the library, share something with the community, or just help. When a donation comes your way don't be afraid to look critically at it. What is the impact of accepting this donation? Will it help or harm the community? Does it open a pathway for other like donations and what would they look like? Would you have added these items if you had paid for them? Just because Mr Smith has a large collection of WWII books to donate doesn't mean you need to add them to your library.

While GLAMs can be underfunded and often fighting for money, items, and attention, it's important to stay true to your core beliefs. Look that gift horse in the mouth and don't be afraid to say no.

A writer with weird ideas and a polytheism fixation. My alter ego lives in the library, soaking up tech and designing pretty things.

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