One of the most frequently asked questions I have here in collections is, “How did the Museum get all this stuff?!” (Considering how eclectic our collections are, that question
is usually asked with a hint of awe and wonder.) For the vast majority of materials in the collection, the answer is simply that they were gifts or donations to the Museum. Occasionally items are purchased; occasionally items are “found in collections” (which is just what it sounds like – an object with no documentation that has been lost to time and storage); and occasionally items are loaned. Well, in this past year, one old loan has been of particular interest. In 1949, what was then known as the Farnsworth Museum at Wellesley College lent a collection of Ancient artifacts from Egypt, Greece, and Rome to the Museum with the generous note “to use the materials in any way we wanted.” How did the loan come to light? A researcher from the British Museum contacted Boston Children’s Museum last fall to trace the artifacts to us through Wellesley’s records. One of our collection interns, Brittany Contratto, inventoried and cataloged the loan back in the fall, along with all of the other Ancient artifacts at Boston Children’s Museum. (See some of her favorites in the post, “What’s Hiding in Collections? Ancient Egyptian Artifacts!”) Meanwhile, I reached out to the registrar at what is now the Davis Museum at Wellesley College to find out how they wanted to proceed.
While the materials came to Boston Children’s Museum as a “permanent loan” in 1949 that is a bit of an oxymoron by today’s collections standards. Loans usually have terms where the dates can be extended or the materials returned, and both parties are aware of the situation. Clearly, this loan had been lost to time on both sides. It was up to the collection committee at the Davis to decide if the loan should be returned to Wellesley or officially transferred to Boston Children’s Museum. To help decide, a curator from the Davis Museum, Claire Whitner, and the Chair of Ancient Art Department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Rita Freed, visited Boston Children’s Museum in December to review the materials and help make a decision. Ultimately, it was decided that the loan would be returned to the Davis Museum.
At the end of June, the Wellesley artifacts were pulled from storage and inventoried for the last time here at Boston Children’s Museum. Art shippers came and carefully packed the materials to prepare for the barely 20 mile drive to Wellesley. (I’m fairly sure that they don’t get to pack a mummified ibis every day!) Later that week, The Davis Museum’s twitter and Instagram feeds (@theDavisMuseum) shared the news of the artifacts being unpacked and safely “home.”
Before folks get concerned that Boston Children’s Museum has lost its Ancient collection, there are still many artifacts on hand, both on exhibit and in storage for future use. It is bittersweet to see so many precious objects leaving the Museum, but knowing that they will be put to new use for exhibits, classes, and further research is the reward of returning this loan. And if it means an upcoming fieldtrip to visit The Davis, I won’t complain! If only all old loans were this easy to resolve.