About The Author

David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

One of the more difficult elements to evaluate in history is sentimental sentiments. A fairly common observation from those working in local history is of attempted donations, be they buildings or an old item from the attic. It seems as though there is a general perception that if people are attached emotionally to something, then that adds to the evidence that the something is historic.

Historians look askance at sentimental feelings for things and want to know “What does this mean?” The answer to the question has to be an articulated argument based on facts and set firmly in context. And yet, for many people, a statement of sentimental worth is enough to make something historic.

How do you talk with potential donors about historical significance when their offer is motivated by sentimental feelings?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Tagged with:

9 Responses to Sentimentally Significant

  1. The sentimental nature of an item is lost the moment the donor walks out the door. True, their family may come back to look at it occasionally, but the value of the item to me as a collections manager and to the general public when that item goes on exhibit is how it illustrates the larger picture of the county/state/country. No matter how much the public holds a piece in esteem, it will never have a personal sentimental meaning to anyone but the original donor or their immediate family. Even a written oral explanation by the original donor will never be able to accurately describe the feelings related to that item and will still only convey to those reading it later the importance on a relatively non-emotional level – even if those reading it have had similar items or experiences. It is vital to extract from that donor the context in which that item became important to that person to lay out a broader picture of the time and events surrounding that item. For example, as a donor lovingly holds the wedding dress her mother made, the historic context must be defined otherwise in 100 years, knowing someone’s mother hand-sewed the dress means nothing unless you ask why did she have to hand make it? Could they not afford to have it made by a seamstress? Was mom a seamstress? Why was this material chosen above some other kind? Etc. … Vs. … “My mother handmade this dress”, which speaks volumes to the donor but very little to anyone else.


  2. Mary Warner says:

    Luckily, we’ve been laying the groundwork for years in terms of mitigating some of that sentimentality related to donations. The first thing we tell people is that whatever they donate has to relate is some way to Morrison County history and that we don’t have a lot of space, so we have to choose carefully. We suggest people call or visit ahead and ask whether we’re able to accept what they want to donate.

    Often, we see a lack of sentimentality when donors bring something for our collections. They are trying to clean stuff out and if we don’t want it, the next step is the trash.

    If someone is really keen on us taking something because they think it will be on display, we let them know that for the preservation of the item, we can’t have it continually on display. It will be carefully preserved and if they want to send family to see the item or would like to see it themselves, they need to call ahead (at least a day) so that we can retrieve the item.

    Of course we always collect provenance – as much as possible – when an item is dropped off.


  3. Connie Lies says:

    When I was on the board at the Meeker County Historical Society we came up against this issue a number of times. Many times it was bibles. We formed an accessions committee who were the first review then if they determined it had historical value it went to the board for a vote. My suggestion is to form a set of rules, a list of other museums that may be better suited for the item, a donation form that must attest to their right to donate the item and that clearly states it will become the property of the museum to do with as they determine. MAKE NO PROMISES as to what will happen to the item. ALWAYS handle a rejection as if it were YOUR most treasured item that someone did not want. Suggest alternatives for them over trash. Donate to a family member in the young generations, ask their church, take it to an antique store, or if it has monetary value donate to a charity auction.


    Mike Worcester reply on June 3rd, 2010:

    I surely hope you had on that form a box for the option of returning the artifact/item to the donor if the Accessions Committee did not accept it.


  4. What is interesting for collecting nonprofit organizations is the disconnect between our expectations of rational donation of collections (historical significance, integrity, etc.) and emotional donation of dollars (give from your heart). Does anyone suppose that the public doesn’t draw the distinction between donating objects and donating money because of the confusion in our messages? There have been some good observations so far, but how can we more clearly articulate the importance of the difference to our constituencies?


    Milissa Brooks-Ojibway reply on June 7th, 2010:

    Could you give an example of this, as I am somewhat unclear as to what you are asking.


    David Grabitske reply on June 9th, 2010:

    We ask people to give 3D objects on a rational basis. Does the ‘thing’ document a great story?

    On the other hand, we ask people to give money from their heart. Historical organizations often report the money raised from “memorials” in honor of deceased loved ones, for example.

    So, on one occasion we accept a donation (object) only if it is rational, but on another occasion we accept a donation (money) because it is emotional.

    Is this a source of confusion for the public? If so, how might we better articulate the reason for insisting on a rational reason for accepting an object when we accept their money offered from the heart?


    Connie Lies reply on June 9th, 2010:

    That is a very interesting concept. I can see the problem because we also tell people “before you toss it out let us look it over”. This implies we want almost everything. I can see the connections between objects and money with “giving from the heart”. Most times the heart is more attached to an item rather than money. This is something that will have to be mulled over.

    Mary Warner reply on June 10th, 2010:

    It is a curious trait of human beings to be able to hold two contradictory ideas in their minds at one time and not go batty. Thus, it seems to work fine to take a rational stance on what we can and can’t accept in our collections. Most people do understand when we tell them we don’t have enough space to take everything because they can relate it to their own lives. They can also respond to emotional appeals for funding in order to save their community’s history. We’re simply focusing our appeals on one of the two sides of the human psyche, depending upon which case we’re trying to make .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers