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Attending the bill-signing at the Old Statehouse in Dover, Delaware, are (from left) Dan Citron, Katherine C. Grier, Kathryn Lenart, Sharon Hess, Tess Frydman, Sara McNamara and Gov. John Carney.
a problem that few museum-goers would ever think about as they peruse
exhibits, but its vexed museums and archives in Delaware and across the
What to do with items that individuals donated, usually many years
ago, without proper paperwork or that they loaned to the museum but
never returned to take back? Museums have generally been burdened by
such items, required to care for them but lacking legal ownership.
Gov. John Carney at the bill signing at the Old State House in Dover.
Now, thanks to a group of Museum Studies
students at the University of Delaware, the state has a new law that
will let museums handle this difficult part of their collections, known
as abandoned cultural property. The bill was signed into law by Gov.
John Carney at a ceremony last week at the Old Statehouse in Dover.
This has been an issue for Delaware museums for years and years, for
every museum in the state, said Dan Citron, president of the Delaware
Museum Association. Legislation to fix the problem has been on our wish
list for some time, but we knew that the process of researching other
states legislation and then drafting something would be
Then, Citron said, Katherine C. Grier, professor of history and
director of the Museum Studies Program at UD, asked a team of her
graduate students to conduct the research and write a policy brief. The
students, Citron said, went above and beyond, coming up with a report
that detailed all the best practices other states had implemented and
working with legislators on the resulting bill.
The students rocked [this assignment], Grier said at the ceremony. They knocked it out of the park.
When the team of six students began the project in fall 2016, they
found that almost all other states had enacted some type of legislation
to address the issue of abandoned property in museum collections. Some
of the efforts were more effective than others, so the students
researched all the laws and spoke with museum professionals locally and
around the country.
We found that a lot of museums have items they dont have paperwork
for, but those items are taking up space, said Sara McNamara, one of
the students on the team. In order to display an item, or conserve it,
or loan it to another museum that would like to display it, you need
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Many of these abandoned items might not be of value to an exhibit
or might not fit the mission of the museum that holds them. Meanwhile,
they occupy storage space that can be at a premium, especially in small
The new law sets out a process for museums to establish that
ownership in specified cases in which a loan period has terminated and
the original lender of the property cannot be found.
Student Kathryn Lenart said Delawares museum professionals and
legislators were extremely helpful throughout the process of reviewing
laws, writing the report and suggesting legislation that used Indianas
law as a successful model.
The project took a lot of time, but we had such great partners,
Lenart said. We learned that this states cultural institutions
represent a vibrant network of dedicated professionals.
The students also thanked legislators for their work that got the
bill to Carneys desk. The General Assembly passed the legislation
State Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, the bills primary sponsor, said he met
with these very, very impressive students and learned of the need for
legislation to better protect the states cultural heritage.
State Sens. Nicole Poore and Ernesto Lopez, who sponsored the bill in
the Senate, also spoke at the signing ceremony. Poore called the
legislation a good-sense bill to help museums use best practices to
operate more efficiently.
The best bills in Delaware come from our constituents, and this is
an example of a bill that came from our best and brightest students,
Also at the signing ceremony, the Delaware Museum Association
presented its 2018 Delaware Diamond Award to the students who worked on
the legislation. Team members attending the ceremony were Lenart,
McNamara, Tess Frydman and Sharon Hess; not attending were recent
graduates Sam Christensen and Sara Berndt, both now working in museums
in other states.
The students have already been approached for input by museum
officials in Maryland, which lacks similar legislation. In June, Grier
said, a workshop is being planned to advise interested Delaware museums
on how to implement the provisions of the new law.
The University of Delaware cultivates civic-minded, engaged citizens through partnerships that impact communities needs. Community-based experiences
are woven into UDs teaching, research and service activities where
students, faculty and staff apply knowledge and creativity to the
critical challenges facing communities in Delaware and around the
world. In 2015, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
recognized this commitment, designating UD as a community engaged university, an honor awarded to less than 10% of U.S. colleges and universities.
Article by Ann Manser; photos courtesy of Delaware Governor's Office