After 38 years of operation, the Powers Museum closed its doors last year. The tiny museum in Carthage, Missouri, featured clothing and furniture of the era, newspaper clippings, letters and photographs representing life in this rural town in southwest Missouri from 1870 to 1940.

However, immediately after the decision to close due to insurmountable budget problems, members of the Board of the Powers Museum were faced with a new problem: what to do with their collection.

This collection was largely the work of the late Marian Powers Winchester, who in 1981 left money to create a museum and fund for its management. But rising costs over the years have led to money running out, says the museum’s last president, Cavan Stul. “Young people“ just weren’t interested in what a buttermilk looked like or the type of shoe someone wore in 1900, ”Mr Stul says.

Covid Tasks

When the museum closes, where to find new homes for its often unique content is a challenge that many councils have faced in recent years as budget constraints and additional financial burdens from Covid-19 and its protocols and locks take their toll.

As a rule, the value, size and importance of the collection of a closed museum dictate what happens – it will move in whole or in part to other institutions or will be broken down and sold to individual buyers. The Philadelphia Museum of History, which closed in 2018 after years of declining attendance, is donating its 130,000 artifacts of the city’s history to Drexel University. A collection of 2,000 weapons and armor found at the Higgins Armory in Worcester, Massachusetts, which closed in 2013, went to the nearby Worcester Art Museum. In 2009, much of the now-defunct Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Branson, Missouri, sold at Christie’s for just under $ 3 million.

An exhibit at the historic birthplace of Harry S. Truman with items donated from the Powers Museum with shutters.


Photo:

Beth Basal

Lesser-known collections are often sold or donated in installments. For example, the Powers collection was broken up and handed over to other institutions in the region. The furniture was donated to a nonprofit organization in nearby Joplin, Missouri, that is restoring old homes. Items of clothing were donated to the Joplin Mining Museum. The app was given at the historic birthplace of Harry Truman in Lamar, Missouri. Showcases and bookshelves were donated to the Museum of Freedom of Flight in Web City and the Neosho Newton County Library. Photographs and newspaper clippings went to a library in Carthage.

“There was also a piano,” says Mr. Chair. “I sold it.”

Before selling or scattering anything, it’s important to determine who actually owns those parts. In a commercial institution, the founder is most likely the owner and can handle the items at will. In a nonprofit museum, items are more likely to belong to the institution itself. Difficulties may arise, for example, if the donated item has entered the museum collection with restrictions (for example, the exhibition must be constantly exhibited or never sold). The restricted object is not considered to be wholly owned by the museum. To remove any restrictions, museum staff must contact the donor or go to court if the donor has died.

Who is the owner?

Susanna Smith Bautista, who became the director of the Art Museum in Pasadena, California in 2017, began closing it permanently the following year. She says she “dug around looking for documents” showing how and when the exhibits entered the museum’s collection. “For a work of art where we either couldn’t find any documentation or the documentation didn’t require us to return it to the artist / donor,” she says, “we tried to come up with museums that would be the most profitable of these works, so we turned to them. with a proposal. “

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If museums put collections up for sale, it could be an opportunity for individual collectors. The Pinball Museum in Banning, California, closed in 2021 and sold most of its collection at auction. Ms. Bautista encourages collectors to “stay close to the collections that interest you and maintain personal connections with curators and others relevant to these museums” to stay ahead of competitors for the same items.

Private buyers can sometimes purchase items directly from the museum, which is closing, especially if it owes money and has to sell items to pay off its debts. “A buyer can call the CEO to ask about purchasing one or more items,” says Jason DeJonker, Brian Cave’s law firm’s bankruptcy attorney.

Mr. Grant is a writer in Amherst, Massachusetts. He can be contacted at reports@wsj.com.

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