Last Tuesday, the New York Times posted an article about the unknown amount of art and other collections items that are missing from museums. It has garnered a great deal of discussion among “museum Twitter,” with everyone acknowledging that this is a major problem and sharing stories of dated inventories, incomplete records, and missing items. None of this was new to me. My own museum career before law school found me often scratching my head, attempting to figure out the latest mystery. One time it was stumbling across two extremely rare and valuable books that the museum did not even know it had. Another time it was coming across a designation in an inventory from the 1950s labeled “Indian skull”. This one was particularly concerning due to the requirements of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act. After investigating, all I was able to establish was that one of the board members had once seen a photograph of the institution’s founder (think ca. 1900) sitting at a desk with a skull on it. Reading stories from fellow museum colleagues about similar encounters was both amusing, reassuring, and depressing.
Many of us shared similar experiences because we had worked in smaller, older historical societies run by a small staff and volunteers with no sense of the museum as a profession. Many of these places started off as volunteer only. One Twitter colleague mentioned the old ledgers that many of these places kept, and I knew exactly what she was talking about—I had seen so many. They were filled with that neat, crisp handwriting that was so Victorian, and recorded such things as, “Mary Smith, street, town, zip, April 22, 1898: blue plate, chipped.” Not helpful when you are facing a parlor closet full of chipped blue plates. We accessioned hundreds of objects as “found in collection”.
As technology not only continues to improve but becomes financially feasible for smaller institutions, these gaps will slowly start to disappear as that scrap of paper with donor information can now be scanned and linked to the object file and not left stuffed, forgotten, in the back of a drawer. However, this will only take the profession so far when dealing with items donated over 100 years ago and for which there is either no record, or the existing record is so vague it cannot be matched to objects. The “found in collection” designation is not going away any time soon.