Night at the Museum: Bill Would Govern ‘Doorstop Donations’

    The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore is among the cultural institutions supporting legislation on donations of artifacts to museums. Wikipedia Commons photo

    State Sen. Antonio L. Hayes (D-Baltimore City) is sponsoring for the second year in a row legislation that would help sort out a problem unique to Maryland museums: Abandoned cultural property.

    According to written testimony submitted to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Thursday, Maryland is one of four states that don’t allow museums to formally claim ownership titles to abandoned objects via any legal process.

    Senate Bill 88 would allow for cultural institutions to give notice of the end permanent loan periods and acquire titles to abandoned or unclaimed property 60 days after announcing their intention publicly. Under this legislation, objects would be considered abandoned if the museum and the lender or their proxy haven’t had written communication within seven years and the loan has no expiration date.

    “Museum objects without official provenance documents… cannot be loaned, conserved, or in many cases displayed,” Hayes wrote in his testimony to the Judicial Proceedings panel. “Abandoned cultural property in museums occupies valuable space that should instead be used for objects that better fulfill a museum’s mission to serve the public.”

    According to the Maryland Historical Society’s director of Grants and Government Affairs, David Belew, at 170 years old and with over 7 million artifacts the museum is the longest-functioning in Maryland and has been facing this provenance problem in recent years.

    “There can be a variety of reasons that our property might be considered abandoned,” said Belew in his testimony before the committee, citing shoddy 19th-century record-keeping methods and “doorstop donations” — the phenomenon of anonymous people leaving items outside of the museum after hours.

    “It’s not just an issue that affects us,” he said in the hearing. “It affects museums all over the state.”

    The Maryland Historical Society, joined by the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Museum and four other cultural institutions across the state, submitted the same written testimony to the committee.

    “Museum professionals throughout the state acknowledge that this is a critical issue,” they wrote. “Adopting the proposed policy would enable Maryland museums to more appropriately use their resources to better serve their communities.”

    The legislation received support during the hearing from Sen. Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County), who said he had toured the Historical Society’s storage facilities and saw nearly 30 18th century sofas.

    “I’ll bet there are very few records these days as to who donated the couch in 1872,” said West. “There clearly is a need for this bill.”

    The bill passed in the Senate last year, but, according to Hayes, failed in the House on the last day of signing because of a disagreement between the Judicial Proceedings Committee and Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) over a bill that would have eliminated the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits.

    “I would just urge and ask this committee to respect the process that you did last year and please move this bill forward,” Hayes said.

    Hannah Gaskill
    Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.