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Philanthropy in the Museum Space

Posted On June 08, 2022 | 11:34 am | by kathys | Permalink
Cultural institutions today welcome philanthropy in many forms, including funds, objects, and other intangible resources

In most museums across the United States, there is a plaque hanging on a wall detailing who financially supports the institution’s vision and the museum’s gratitude for their contributions. If it is not a plaque, then a name for a wing of the museum or a gallery, or, more recently, a dedicated page to the donors on the museum’s website. Their charitable giving becomes monumentalized for their altruism, yet providing funds is not the only philanthropic way to assist a museum. Gifts in the form of objects also play an important part in exhibitions.

When visiting Dumbarton Oaks, one cannot deny how visually striking the artworks are within the museum. In the current special exhibition in the hallway, ceramics from ancient Peruvian civilizations are suspend in floating plexiglass cases. Each case holds two exemplary representations of a theme in Pre-Columbian ceramics. When looking to learn more about the items, the gallery text reveals that these items are from a private collection in DC. In this exhibition, A Beautiful Dichotomy: Contrasting Pre-Columbian Peruvian Ceramics, fifteen out of the sixteen objects are promised gifts to the museum. While fifteen objects are on view, in total the gift will be one hundred and seventy-four pieces. This will be one of the largest collections bequeathed to Dumbarton Oaks, but more importantly, this gift makes its mark on our permanent collection by adding to areas in the Pre-Columbian Studies while keeping in line with the mission of the institution.

Special exhibition A Beautiful Dichotomy: Contrasting Pre-Columbian Peruvian Ceramics, now on view at the Dumbarton Oaks Museum. Photo by Lauren Toman.
Special exhibition A Beautiful Dichotomy: Contrasting Pre-Columbian Peruvian Ceramics, now on view at the Dumbarton Oaks Museum. Photo by Lauren Toman.

To an outsider looking in on the process of giving gifts to museums, the act may seem simple: a philanthropist contacting an institution and informing it of their objects and then signing over the pieces. However, the transfer of ownership of objects is a more complex procedure that does not always result in the museum’s acquisition. After the initial correspondence to relocate the objects into the museum’s care, curators must evaluate the items and the care requirements for each piece. Even if a museum has an interest in obtaining the new object, if they cannot create space in storage, the proper environmental conditions, or manpower to take care of the works, then they may have to turn down the gift. If these conditions are met a museum still might not be able to accept a gift. Another reason for declining may be a legal constraint that prevents a transfer of custodianship. Other factors include the scope and focus of a museum. At Dumbarton Oaks, the Pre-Columbian collection builds upon the vision of Robert Bliss, the founder. Mr. Bliss had certain tastes and preferences, and despite his passing, curators keep the collection true to his wishes while also ensuring that these objects are beneficial to research. With this promised gift, Dumbarton Oaks is fulfilling an aspirational desire of Mr. Bliss while also expanding its collection to allow scholars and visitors greater insights and new perspectives into Andean culture.

One institution where gifts are also providing new views is the National Museum of American History. While gifts are often utilized to showcase a narrative in an exhibition, at the National Museum of American History, gifts are also displayed as gifts to the museum in the Giving in America exhibition. As part of the museum’s interest in discussing the historical impact of philanthropy in the United States, a thirty-foot permanent case is filled with objects illustrating philanthropic acts throughout time. Items demonstrate how people give, what they give, what causes prompt philanthropy, and the people who give.


Giving in America exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (NMAH). Photo courtesy of NMAH.
Giving in America exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (NMAH). Photo courtesy of NMAH.

This exhibition is unique for it is one of the first in the country to discuss philanthropy as a scholarly topic and since the philanthropy collection of the National Museum of American History, currently over 150 items, is mostly made up of gifts to the museum. Due to the wealth of objects in the collection, the selection of objects in the case periodically rotates. As of spring 2022, visitors will notice two parts of the case. On the left, a title reads, “Who Pays for Education.” This section comprises of objects that correlate to the museum’s philanthropy symposium, The Power of Giving. With each new symposium, this section changes to reflect the theme of the discussions. On the right, the historical exploration of philanthropy is showcased. In this part of the case, visitors see examples of philanthropic practices and interests throughout time, but also how they may connect with philanthropy in the present. Scattered at the bottom of the case, envelopes from The World Wildlife Foundation, Feeding America, The American Cancer Society, and other foundations ask or thank donors for financial contributions. A well-worn hard hat with a ripped and a faded sticker of Habitat for Humanity from the mid-2000s sits under a spotlight. Although these objects are behind glass, a visitor may know these items well and interact with them in their lives. At one point they may give to a foundation or volunteer with a nonprofit, so these items also allow for visitors to see themselves within the philanthropic narrative.

Hard hat from Giving in America. Photo by Lauren Toman.
Hard hat from Giving in America. Photo by Lauren Toman.

The objects in the case play an important role in understanding philanthropy. Amanda Moniz, the David M. Rubenstein curator of philanthropy at the National Museum of American History, explains that she chooses visually strong objects. Alluring objects draw visitors towards the case, which allows them to gain knowledge on philanthropy. Yet, these objects also shape how one may be able to see philanthropy. Philanthropy is often thought of as a concept that is tied to financial giving. While this is true, philanthropy can expand into giving of time, talent, and resources. The objects themselves help to broaden the idea of philanthropy by being philanthropic gifts. Not only do they reveal the history of philanthropy, but they also serve as representations of modern-day giving to a cultural institution. With these examples, visitors can walk away with a tangible example of how philanthropy can materialize, which helps to illuminate philanthropic practices.

Philanthropy in the museum space might typically be thought of as financial donations; however, giving objects is another impactful form of philanthropy. While philanthropy in the form of funds can lead to various opportunities for a museum, giving objects becomes an investment in the institution. Objects enable a museum to educate visitors and give scholars the chance to study cultures and materials that might not be accessible to them otherwise. They may also provide a new angle to view concepts and historical events. A gift’s role in cultural institutions can vary, but it often leads to beneficial implementations.

A Beautiful Dichotomy: Contrasting Pre-Columbian Ceramics is on view at Dumbarton Oaks from April to December 2022.


Lauren Toman is the postgraduate fellow in cultural philanthropy.