The new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown will tell the story of America’s beginnings as an independent nation, and much of that storytelling will be accomplished with artifacts, not words. Acquiring artifacts for a major museum exhibit is a complex process that takes knowledge, determination and, above all, planning.
The first and most important step in the acquisitions process is the acquisitions plan. Each artifact in a museum exhibit has a job to do in terms of conveying information. Therefore, at the beginning of the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown project, staff developed a detailed and highly focused list of the things needed to tell our particular story of the Revolution. The artifacts that made the list were those that would best advance the gallery storyline.
Most commonly, museums get the artifacts they need for an exhibit by either buying or borrowing them. Common sense would say that it is cheaper to borrow than buy, but in the world of museums that isn’t always true. Museums that lend don’t normally try to make a profit on artifact loans, but they expect, reasonably enough, that the borrowing institution will cover all the costs of the loan. These can be considerable. Loan costs routinely amount to thousands of dollars and, of course, any artifact a museum borrows eventually will have to go back to the museum that loaned it. From a long-term perspective, buying is often cheaper than borrowing.
Artifact purchases for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation museums – Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center, transitioning to American Revolution Museum at Yorktown – are made by the private fundraising affiliate Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Inc.
Museum curators locate and evaluate potential artifact acquisitions. They may find desired artifacts in the hands of individual collectors, antique dealers or auction houses. The curators do background research on artifacts before purchase to make sure that the artifacts are authentic and in good condition and that the price being asked is appropriate. Sometimes there are months of negotiations before a price is agreed upon.
In the case of an artifact being sold at auction, the curators must decide beforehand what the maximum bid will be. When bidding in sales conducted by major auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation is competing with museums and collectors from all over the world. It is important to set a realistic bid limit beforehand, and not to “chase” some highly desirable artifact beyond that limit.
Building a museum artifact collection takes patience, too. Every artifact on the wanted list is not going to be available for purchase today, in the next month, or in the next year. However, if a museum has a well-thought-out acquisitions plan and sticks to it, each year that museum’s collection gets stronger. When the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown galleries open in late 2016, our visitors will see the remarkable results of years of patient, methodical and planned artifact acquisition.