Museum donation question

Is it possible to get a donated item back from a museum?

A few years ago, I donated a small old diary I found while cleaning out the attic of an old house in my home town and would now like it back as I’ve recently taken more of an interest in the history of that town. I did sign a form when I donated it, but I’ve never seen it on display so I feel that may give me some leeway. I know the first answer will probably be to call the museum, but I was hoping to hear from someone with experience if it would even behoove me to call.

It would depend entirely on the size of the museum and the research value of the item. Most museums have only a small fraction of their collections on display. The collections are mainly for research purposes.

If it’s a small local museum and the diary doesn’t have any great historical importance, then you may have a good chance of getting it back. If it’s the Smithsonian and it’s the diary of John Wilkes Booth, maybe not so much.

It would also be easier to get back if the item has not been officially accessioned, that is, entered in the museum catalog. Sometimes items can sit around for a long time before the paperwork gets done.

Really the only way to find out is to call up the curator.

Curator (IRL)

I grew up in a historical neighborhood with a couple of show houses. Much of the furniture in them was not owned by them but rather by the local county museum. They actively worked together to showcase the pieces in context, but it was clear who owned them.
So rather than “get the diary back”, I think if you phrased it as, “I donated a diary a couple of years ago to your collection-- I was curious if you could loan it to me for a while as I’d like to re-read it and look for some clues about the history of the town. I plan on returning the diary when I am finished and hopefully be able to highlight any tidbits of interest within the diary that may be of interest to the museum.” you would have more luck. The Louvre, Prado, Hermitage, Field Museum all have only a small percentage of their collection on display, but that doesn’t mean the rest isn’t of interest now or in the future and as such museums are unlikely to let a piece go as they know that longterm it is safer with them, then out in the wilds of your living room :wink:

I kind of figured that would be the answer. A point that may be in my favor is that it didn’t really say much, it mostly talked about the weather and crop prices and stuff. Most of the days didn’t have anything on them. Plus it is a small, pocket diary. The only part that really said anything talked about a trip to Chicago (I think, some big city). The only reason I would like it back is, as I said, it pertains to the history of my home town and belonged to the most ‘famous’ newspaper man from back then. I’ll dig up the form they gave me and take it over there and see what develops. From what I remember, they didn’t even spell the man’s name correctly on the form.


I doubt that you would have a problem if all you wanted to do was look at it, or even make a copy, especially if you said you were doing research on the history of the town.

It will depend entirely on the particular museum.

But there are very good reasons why most museums would, as a point of principle, refuse to reverse any donation. Donors are most likely to change their minds for purely mercenary reasons. They see a similar item come up for sale and then conclude - quite possibly incorrectly - that their donation had a monetary value they had not realised. Or their heirs had always wanted to sell the item and so try to claim it back when the donor dies. That sort of thing.

What however the museum will almost certainly be willing to do is to provide you with digital images of the diary. But then (unless there is a copyright problem) they would probably be willing to provide those to anyone at all who wanted them. The only difference could be that, as special treatment to you as the donor, they might not charge you for this. If it’s the content that interests you, those images will be all you’ll need anyway.

Or, if they don’t have digital imges yet (possible, if it’s never been officially ‘accessed’), you might ask to borrow it to scan it, and offer to provide them with the digital scans when you return it. That might increase the odds that they will work with you on this.

Probably no copyright issues as the diary is from 1892.

I hadn’t thought of the scan and return idea. I might run that by them. They may even have done it already. Might be awfully hard to do though as it’s a pretty small pocket diary about the size of a deck of cards.