Places To Donate Quilts (Museums & Other Organizations)

Can you please tell me if there is a standard procedure for making a donation of antique textiles (quilt) to a museum, or any special considerations to be aware of?

Museums were once thought of as the community storeroom. In fact the Smithsonian has often been referred to as “The nation’s attic.”

At one time families without heirs would just drop off their heirlooms at the local historical society and assume they would be treasured, cared for and displayed for posterity.

Museums and historical groups found themselves burdened with the expense and work of caring for hundreds of wedding dresses, thousands of tea sets and other precious family artifacts, while many were working to become interpretive centers wanting to explore and explain the everyday lives of people in their areas at different times in history. What they needed were work clothes, not wedding dresses, cereal boxes, not silver tea sets. And they needed money to pay for temperature and humidity controlled storage.

Today, most museums and historical societies have adopted accession policies to collect only those things which fulfill their interpretive mission and fill in gaps in their collections.

If you are interested in donating a quilt or other textile to a museum, think about what your goals are. Do you want your quilt displayed? Do you want your quilt to be available for scholars to study? Would you feel o.k. if the museum sold your quilt in order to buy something more important to their collection? Do you want the right to get the quilt back if the museum decides to deaccession the quilt?

How do you want your gift to be acknowleged? Does the museum have the right to photograph the quilt, make notecards from the design, make and sell a pattern based on the quilt? If it is exhibited, how do you want to be listed in the exhibit or in a catalog — do you want your city and state to be listed (some collectors remain anonymous or leave few clues about the locations of their collections)?

When the International Quilt Study Center accepted the James Collection, the agreement took more than 20 pages to cover all the rights and responsibilites of both parties.

Quilts are expensive to store, maintain and care for. Each requires an acid free box which must be changed every 10-15 years. Each requires about 50 sheets of acid free tissue which need to be changed every three to five years. Each quilt needs to be refolded four times a year by a paid staff member or volunteer. And ideally it will be kept in a space where temperature and humidity are controlled and pest infestation is prevented. Depending on the condition of the quilt, there may also be a cost for conservation treatment.

Talk with the potential recipient before cleaning, restoring or altering the quilt in any way. Depending on the museum’s policies, they may not accept altered items, or those handled with less than professional conservation measures.

When considering donating a quilt which you want to stay in the museum’s possession for the forseeable future (many museums will not even accept items without the right to deaccession them at some point in the future), consider donating a sum which will pay for the quilt’s care and maintenance from the interest. With the current cost of boxes, tissue and the current low interest rates on savings, I would think most museums would respond well to a donation of $1,000 to $1,500 cash along with the quilt. Of course, any agreement about how those funds will be used and how long the museum agrees to keep and care for the quilt are matters to be covered in an accession agreement.

Your museum may have a standard agreement, but be aware you can always propose modifications to it. You may need to pay an attorney to redraft the agreement. Write out in plain English what you would like to have happen and go over it with the museum’s curatorial staff. Once you reach an agreement, they may have a volunteer attorney who will draw up the agreement. You still may want to engage an attorney to review the agreement on your behalf.

If the quilt has significant monetary value, it is generally considered the responsibility of the donor to get an independent appraisal.

Donating damaged quilts can be even more of a problem. Unless the quilt has great historic significance for the region, or is the only quilt of it’s type the institution has, many museums will pass on the donation.

The Quilt Heritage Foundation accepts donations of damaged quilts. They are used for one of the following purposes:

  1. If the quilt is in good enough shape to appeal to a collector interested in restoring it, it is put in the scholarship auction at one of the Foundation’s conferences. Proceeds are used to offer scolarships to attend the Foundation’s conferences and workshops for people who would not otherwise be able to attend.
  2. If it has a unique pattern or is a unique interpretation of a traditional pattern, it may become a source of a pattern for the Quilt Preservation Society.
  3. If the quilt is restorable or can be reformatted, it is adopted by a volunteer restorer who takes the quilt home, then returns it for a future scholarship auction after completing work on it.
  4. If the quilt is really beyond restoration, it is used to train restorers much as donated bodies are used to train medical students.

The only quilts the Foundation cannot accept are those with mold, mildew, or insect damage or soiled with substances that could endanger our volunteers (body fluids, animal waste, etc.). They do accept fragments of quilts hurt in fires or floods if they have been through preliminary cleaning.

For more information, contact Nancy Kirk, President, Quilt Heritage Foundation, P.O. Box 19452, Omaha, NE 68119. If you decide to ship a quilt, please include a letter telling us anything you know of the history of the quilt, and stating that it is a donation.

The Quilt Heritage Foundation is a non-profit organization under section 501-c-3 of the Internal Revenue Code. All donations are tax-deductible.

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