Monday, February 4, 2013

Permanent Loans

In preparation for our last funding application, I took a serious look at the collections databases and came up with some statistics on loans. The good news is that there were far fewer than I expected. The bad news is that these have been sitting in our museums for many, many years.
According to my info, there are 3,210 permanent loans hanging out in our museums. To put this in perspective, 31 of the advisory service museums have fewer than 3,210 artifacts in their collections. So we've got an entire collection of loans.

Given this revelation, I think it's time to clear up a few things about "permanent loans".

1. You're not supposed to accession loans.
2. Items should only be brought in on loan to meet a specific purpose in a temporary exhibit.
3. You should not be accepting loans for any longer than one year.

I've heard a lot of arguments from museums about this; allow me to share my three favourites:

Argument: If we ask them to donate it or annually renew the loan they'll come and take away the artifacts and we'll lose a lot of our collection.
My Response: It's not your collection. It's their stuff that you're storing for free, and it's taking up valuable time and resources that should be spent on things the museum actually owns.

Argument: They'll be insulted that we don't want their family heirlooms.
My Response: Tracking loans is not saying you don't want their stuff. It says that you are following ethical standards, being professional and responsible, and want to make sure that everyone is still happy with the arrangement.

Argument: If we agree to keep it on loan for a long time they might leave it to us in their will.
My Response: Not if they've forgotten you still have it, or if the heirs don't know you have it. Better to ask what their intentions are with the object(s) and get it in writing than to be caught in the middle of heirs fighting over who gets what.

Ok, so what's the best approach for addressing old loans?
As with anything else, the museum/society board needs to understand why this is an important issue to address. This is a "united we stand, divided we fall" situation. The entire organization needs to remain steadfast in its position on loans so that the public hears the same message from all fronts. This even extends beyond any one museum. Last fall I heard about a donor who had given items to two different museums in the province. The donor's experience was vastly different at each site and they were asking why this was the case. This should not happen. We have professional standards for a reason.

So here's my cheat sheet on tracking down and reconciling old loans.

Step 1 - Identify loaned items in the collection, creating lists by lender. Prioritize the lists based on the number of loans. The lender with the largest number of items should be approached first, although the museum may need to adjust priorities based on age, health, whether the lender is leaving the community in the near future, etc.

Step 2 - Review the lists and determine what the ideal outcome is. Decide which items you would like to have donated, and which ones you want to return. This is not any one person's decision, nor is it a simple "do we like this or not" question. Each item should be treated as a potential acquisition using your Pre-Acquisition Review Form. So whether it's the collections committee or Manager/Curator with the Board of Directors, make sure you can say that each item was reviewed and discussed as a group and that you have the paperwork to justify your decisions.

Step 3 - Draft a formal letter explaining that you are updating your collections care procedures, and this includes reviewing all items on loan. It doesn't have to be a long letter, but it needs to be signed by the president of the Board of Directors. If the community has a strong relationship with your Curator or Director, you may want them to sign it as well. Explain that the old notion of a "permanent loan" (objects loaned to the museum for an indefinite period of time and without any sort of renewal process) has been abandoned by the museum community due to the high risks involved with this practice. Feel free to cite the Tillman thefts as a reason for the review. Outline three options for the lender:
         1. Sign over ownership and any associated intellectual property rights, officially donating the
             item(s) to the museum.

     2. Renew the loan agreement and agree to revisit the loan on an annual basis.
     3. Settle the loan by taking their object(s) back.

Step 4 - Invite the lender to visit the museum for tea and a chat about their loans. Be sure that they understand the nature of the discussion so they don't feel blindsided. When you sit down to review each item, be sure that they have their list, and that you have your list (yours is the cheat sheet list so you know what the ideal outcome is for each item). Depending on the item(s), consider bringing them in to your office so the lender can see what you're talking about. This will help you to avoid any confusion. If it's easier to take a walk around the museum, that works just as well.
For people that live out of town, you can discuss this on the phone, but it will be far more difficult. After letting them know about the review process, mail them the formal letter and list of items on loan. Then you can have a second conversation to review and discuss each item. Since you can't have the items in the room for this discussion, you should include photos of the items with the letter and list.

Wrapping Up - By the end of the meeting, some decisions should have already been made. So let's return to those three options the lender was given. Anything that the museum wants to return should be carefully packed (do this ahead of time) and sent happily on its way with the owner. That's the easy part. For the signing over of ownership and renewal of loan agreements, the lender may wish to take some time to think about their options. This is fine, but they need to understand that they can't disappear to think for 5 years. Encourage them to make the decision as quickly as possible, consulting any family members or friends who may help them mull things over, but let them know that you need an answer within 30 days. You have many other responsibilities to attend to, and don't want to chase after them for their decision. If necessary, follow up with the lender, and sign the relevant documents. Remember that you can group donations and loans on one form, just be sure to include an itemized list of what is included.

Congratulations!! You've just reconciled a bunch of old loans! And now that the hard part is over, all you have to do is manage your temporary loans. Easy peasy.

Important disclaimer - Reconciliation of loans, especially very old loans, requires discussion and signing authority which is only held by senior staff and/or board members. This is NOT a job for your summer students, interns, or other temporary staff/volunteers. There are only two pieces which they could/should assist with - compiling the list of loaned items (one list per lender), and determining accurate contact information by checking the loan files, phone book, local directories,, etc.