Many years ago when I was first working on entering the museum profession, I talked to the director of a major military museum. This director sent about fifteen minutes telling me that private collectors were absolutely the lowest life form. Later I talked to a curator who believed all historical artifacts, regardless of how many existed should be stored in a museum; basically no private ownership of anything old should be permitted. It was not long before I learned just how valuable and helpful private collectors and researchers can be to museums. Sadly, there are still museum professionals that view these valuable resources with suspicion and dread.

I chaired a session at the 2011 AASLH Annual Meeting in Richmond on this topic and present this brief article to help you work with private collectors and researchers

What are some reasons museums should work with private collectors and researchers?

  1. Networking with collectors and researchers can help you with many aspects of your museum from artifact identification and cataloging to exhibits and publishing. Private collectors and researchers spend lots of time and money pursuing their hobby so they know others with the same interests.
  2. Wealth of knowledge and talent is out there in the private world, no matter how obscure or unusual the subject there is a group of people who collect it and/or research it.
  3. Sharing and dissemination of historical knowledge. Next to the preservation of artifacts this is one of our primary missions. Most private individuals are happy to share their information with others.
  4. The vast majority of research and publishing in all areas of material culture is being done by private collectors and researchers, not by museum professionals or academics. Helping the private collector and researcher often ends up helping the whole profession.

So how do you know if the person who appears at the museum knows their subject and can be useful to your museum? The key question is—are they interested in discovering and sharing historical knowledge? Other questions include have you published anything, if yes, what in what publications? What organizations do you belong to? What other museums have you worked with? Some things to observe—do they have and use respected published sources and are they able to say “I don’t know”?

How do you find private collectors or researchers? Often they find you as they seek artifacts and information to further their research. Word of mouth, organizations, magazines, shows, books, other museums are all ways to them. No matter what it is, there is sure to be a group, publication, website, or show where the collectors of dolls, quilts, farm tools, helmets, tricycles, or whatever connect with others with the same interests.

Over the years my work with private collectors and researchers has resulted in four books, numerous articles and many exhibitions. Collectors can help you turn a small museum collection of artifacts into a significant exhibit or publication. Private collectors and researchers can be an invaluable resource for your museum in many areas with a little effort.

By Gordon Blaker, Chair, AASLH Military History Affinity Group Director/Curator, US Army Artillery Museum, Fort Sill, OK