Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Reconsidering short-term museum loans

Most collectors of historic, ethnographic or artistic artifacts would not be expected to know about the procedures involved when a museum accepts an object on a short-term loan basis. It is thus hoped that this brief post will offer a few suggestions that may be helpful, especially when short-term loaned items are chosen for use within permanent displays.

What is a short-term museum loan?

A loan is the temporary relocation of an object(s) from a private individual or institution to a museum, in which there is no change of ownership or title. Loans may be used for displays, research, publication or educational purposes, in order to promote better understanding. In the case of a “short-term” loan, this states that the loan is accepted into a museum for a specific period of time, which can be varied depending on the institution’s policies as well as the discretion of the director or curator. For the purpose of this post, however, the word is taken to refer to loans that have a length of less than five years.

The registration process

In order to properly manage collections, museums need to keep specific records of all loaned objects within its care. Documentation is essential to maintain the identity, cultural value, and care of an object. The museum is required to account for all artifacts and to ensure that details of location and security are recorded accordingly. For legal purposes, the object is also often photographed and monitored for its condition. Additionally, it is necessary for all loans to be tied in with a loan agreement, which describes the items on loan and loan duration. This document must be signed in duplicate, by authorized parties of both the museum and the lender. It used to be acceptable for museums to receive “indefinite” or “permanent loans”, making it possible for the loan registration process to be completed at just one time. However, current practices discourage this standard, as it is too easy to lose contact with the owner (it is generally the lender’s responsibility to notify the museum of change of address or ownership during the loan period. In such cases, the museum needs to prepare a new loan agreement to reflect these changes.) Loans are now subject to preset terms, meaning that they have to be renewed on a continual basis, involving replication of the registration process. The lender therefore becomes repeatedly burdened with filling out paperwork, in order to continue renewing his loan. When dealing with a substantial number of separate short-term loans, administration costs for a non-profit organization, such as a museum, may prove to be both time-consuming and financially steep.

Returning loan items

One of the most frustrating situations that may occur with short-term loans is when they are unavoidably recalled without adequate notice to the museum. This may lead to unsightly gaps within the permanent exhibit area, which need to be filled promptly. Not only must the museum acquire suitable objects for replacement at such short notice, which can prove both tricky and costly, but also the entire registration process for the alternative exhibit item has to be completed before placing it on display. The museum’s limited resources are thus better spent on items either already owned by the museum, or on obtaining its own objects to complete its collection.

Problems may also occur when the loan period comes to an end. For example, should the museum no longer want the object, the lender is often responsible for its collection within a suitable time period. However, failure to retrieve the item may sometimes result in the museum charging the lender storage fees, due to storage space restrictions. In some cases, the museum is unable to contact the lender, and after a certain amount of time, materials are often deemed an unrestricted gift to the museum. The item may subsequently be sold, auctioned or donated to another appropriate institution at the museum’s discretion. Even when the museum is able to locate the lender, more paperwork needs to be completed. The lender needs to confirm that the item received is in satisfactory condition. Even this may not be the conclusion of the process. This, actually, leads us to another crucial issue that needs to be dealt with when a museum receives loaned items.

Protecting loan items

Whilst on loan, artifacts are potentially at greater risk of damage. Though museums use the same standards of professional care, safekeeping and preventative measures for loaned items as they would for their permanent collections, many things can still go awry. Objects can undergo spoilage or loss from perils such as fire, theft, accidental damage or vandalism. Usually it is the museum’s responsibility for insuring the loaned items. However, insurance coverage can be very costly, and many museums have great difficulty in paying the premiums for their own collections, let alone for any additional loaned items. It is imperative for museums to be able to recuperate after a loss to their own property, but perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for additional luxuries such as loaned artifacts to be covered under the lender’s existing insurance policy. If travel of the item is not already permitted under his individual policy, many insurance companies offer extended coverage in the form of a simple cover note for a fairly inexpensive nominal fee.


The purpose of this post is certainly not to discourage short-term loans. On the contrary, museums are very appreciative to all those who decide to lend their objects, and thank them for their collaboration and kindness in this matter. However, due to the extensive amount of time and effort involved with the registration process, as well as various associated problems encountered along the way, it may be more beneficial for such loans to be restricted to specific short-term projects or exhibitions, as opposed to integrating them within permanent displays. Permanent exhibits need stability and it would be more helpful to use objects from either the museum’s own collection (e.g., objects by gift, purchase or transfer) or to make use of long-term loans for this particular role.

Rees, Diane A. 2003. Some considerations concerning short-term museum loans, when used for permanent or long-term exhibits. The Canvasback, Spring 2003, 101-102

Further information:

1 comment:

  1. Its really a fascinating stuff. Wow!!....Wow!!...What an excellent idea to post a precious post!..I think nobody can be brief as like your post!Thank you...



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