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When a Museum Closes, What Happens to Its Collection?

After 38 years of operation, the Museum of Power closed its doors last year. This small museum in Carthage, Mo., displays period clothing and furniture, newspaper clippings, letters, and photos that show life in this southwestern Missouri rural town from 1870 to 1940.

However, shortly after the decision to close due to insurmountable budget problems, the board members of the Museum of Power found themselves facing a new challenge: what to do with the ministry. their collection.

That collection is largely the work of the late Marian Powers Winchester, who put in money in 1981 to build a museum and property to run it. But rising costs over the years meant money was starting to run out, said the museum’s last board chairman, Kavan Stull. “Younger people” don’t care what a buttercream cake looks like or the style of shoe someone wore in 1900, says Mr. Stull.

Vivid challenge

When a museum closes, finding new homes for its often unique content is a challenge many directors have faced in recent years, because of budget constraints and Additional financial stresses from Covid-19 and its protocols and lockdowns take their toll.

Often, the value, size, and importance of a closed museum’s collection determine what happens — whether it moves in whole or in part to other institutions or is broken up and sold to each buyer. The Philadelphia Museum of History, which closed in 2018 after years of declining attendance, is transferring 130,000 artifacts about the city’s history to Drexel University. The collection of 2,000 weapons and armor once found in Worcester-based Higgins Arsenal, which closed in 2013, has been moved to nearby Worcester Art Museum. In 2009, much of the now defunct Roy Rogers & Dale Evans Museum in Branson, Mo., sold at Christie’s for just under $3 million.

An exhibit at the Harry S. Truman Birthplace Historic Site, with donated items from the Museum of Power has closed.


Photo:

Beth Bazal

Lesser-known collections are often sold or donated in pieces. For example, the Powers collection has been forked and donated to other organizations in the area. The furniture was turned over to a non-profit in Joplin, Mo. nearby, specializing in the restoration of old houses. The clothing items have been moved to the Joplin Mining Museum. An entrance counter was given to the Harry S Truman Birthplace Historic Site in Lamar, Mo. The display cases and bookshelves were donated to the Freedom of Airplane Museum in Webb City and the Neosho Newton County Library, respectively. The photographs and newspaper clippings were delivered to the library in Carthage.

“There is also a piano,” said Mr. Stull. “I sold it.”

Before selling or scattering anything, it is important to determine who actually owns the pieces. In a for-profit organization, the founder can be the owner and can do with the items however they choose. In a non-profit museum, it is more likely that the objects belong to the organization itself. There can be complications, for example, if a donated item is included in a museum collection with restrictions (such as that the work must be on permanent display or never be sold). A restricted object is not considered wholly owned by the museum. To remove any restrictions, museum officials need to contact the donor, or go to court if the donor has passed away.

Who is the owner?

Susana Smith Bautista, who became director of the Pasadena Art Museum (California) in 2017, began to close permanently the following year. She said she was “trying to find the paperwork” that showed how and when the pieces were included in the museum’s collection. “For artwork that we couldn’t find any documents for or that didn’t require us to return them to the artist/sponsor,” she says, “we tried to think of museums would benefit most from these works and so we approached them with an offer.”

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When museums put collections up for sale, it can be an opportunity for individual collectors. The Pinball Museum in Banning, California, closes in 2021 and sells most of its collection through auction. Ms. Bautista recommends that collectors “follow closely the collections that interest you and maintain a personal relationship with the curators and others involved in these museums” to stay ahead of the competition. competitors for the same item.

Private buyers can sometimes purchase items directly from a closed museum, especially if it owes money and needs to sell the items to pay off its debts. “A buyer might call an executive to inquire about purchasing one or more items,” said Jason DeJonker, bankruptcy attorney in the Chicago office of law firm Bryan Cave.

Mr. Grant is a writer in Amherst, Mass. You can contact him at report@wsj.com.

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Edmund DeMarche

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