by Lisa Vedda
One issue that some museums in Minnesota face in their historical collections is abandoned loans. These are objects that a patron has loaned to the museum for display, research, or another purpose, but for whatever reason, the lender did not respond to attempts by the museum to arrange for the items to be returned. This can be a problem for museums because these items take up space in the museum’s storage and require resources to care for their preservation, but the museum does not hold clear title to the objects and so cannot remove the object from its collection and possession if the object is deemed to no longer fit the museum’s collecting objectives. When the Clay County Historical Society opened its first museum in 1936 in the basement of McLean Hall at the Moorhead State Teachers College, many objects were given or donated to the museum, but many more were loaned for the first educational displays of Clay County history. The terms of these loans were often informal, with the lender allowing the museum to use the objects for as long as it needed to, and the museum giving license to the lenders to stop by to pick up the objects whenever they would like. Over the years, many items were returned, but many still remain in the museum’s collection. HCSCC no longer accepts loans of objects without a defined end date.
In 2004, the state’s museum community achieved the goal of having legislation passed with a path for museums to follow to acquire clear ownership of these types of objects in their collections, called the Minnesota Museum Property Act. The law outlines clear steps that the museum must take and document in order to be able to declare ownership of abandoned pieces in their collection. The museum must first attempt to notify the lender of the abandoned property by certified mail one final time at their last known address. If the lender or their heir does not come forward within the time allotted after the delivery of the mail notification, the museum must publish notice in a local publication for a specified period of time. If the lender or an heir does not contact the museum within the designated time frame after the public notice, the museum may claim ownership of the loaned objects. The collections staff at the HCSCC has begun the process of identifying objects and collections that were loaned in order to begin the process of acquiring clear title to them. It will be a time-consuming project and will incur some costs, but it is a necessary task for responsible stewardship of the society’s collection of artifacts that document the county’s history.