Donating historical treasures isn't as easy as leaving old clothes in a bag on the front porch for a charity pickup. You first have to prove...
Donating historical treasures isn’t as easy as leaving old clothes in a bag on the front porch for a charity pickup.
You first have to prove the items are museum-worthy. Then you have to get a museum to accept them. And museums, which have limited space for storage and even more limited dollars to properly preserve items, can be picky.
But two Bellevue residents hit the big time this summer. Both donated items to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Pat Sheffels parted with an Alaskan doll she had packed from Texas to California, Montana and finally Washington state. Bob Adamowski donated a 47-star U.S. flag — so rare that experts say fewer than 20 exist.
Smithsonian officials get so many offers of donations for their 18 museums that they don’t keep overall records of the numbers, said spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas.
“We have more than 136 million things that have been donated,” St. Thomas said. “We have to think about what we can conserve and can store.”
Even the newest museum in the group, the National Museum of the American Indian, has already received more than 110 offers this calendar year. It has accepted nearly half, said Amy Drapeau, spokeswoman for that museum, including Sheffels’ hand-carved wooden doll.
Donating to museums
What qualifies: Museums typically do not purchase artifacts. You must own the object and have the right to donate it. Donation also transfers all literary and property rights and copyrights. You will be asked how you acquired the object and its history. The object’s condition is important.
What they want: Photographs, particularly if they show an area in the background. Old home movies, again for the backgrounds. Family diaries. Period clothing, toys, tools and odd things like menus from old restaurants.
The Smithsonian: With 18 different museums, the Smithsonian has collections covering most aspects of American life. Located in Washington, D.C.; 202-633-1000 or www.si.edu
Museum of History & Industry: Focus is on the history of Seattle and the greater Puget Sound region. Fill out an artifact-evaluation questionnaire about the artifact. Located in Seattle at 2700 24th Ave. E.; 206-324-1126 or www.seattlehistory.org
Issaquah Historical Society: It accepts items related to Issaquah history, in good condition and suitable for exhibits, and not duplicated in its collection already. Located at 165 S.E. Andrews St.; 425-392-3500 or www.issaquahhistory.org
Others: Additional groups on the Eastside involved in preservation include Bothell Historical Museum Society, 425-486-1889; Duvall Historical Society, 425-788-6209; Eastside Heritage Center, 425-450-1049 (covers all of the Eastside); Kenmore Heritage Society, 425-486-4202; Kirkland Heritage Society, 425-827-3446; Northwest Railway Museum, 425-888-0373; Renton Historical Museum, 425-255-2330; Sammamish Heritage Society, 425-281-0170; Snoqualmie Valley Historical Museum, 425-888-3200.
Sheffels did some research on the doll, which is dressed in traditional Eskimo winter clothes made from at least seven different animal furs.
“A friend was a docent at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks,” Sheffels said. “I sent her a picture, and she wrote back saying they only had one doll in their collection that was even similar.”
Museum curators want to know the history of each item before they accept it.
Sheffels’ doll had been a gift to her father. He taught celestial navigation to Navy pilots during World War II and received the doll from another Navy officer who in turn had received it from Navy Cmdr. Howard Gilmore.
Just having passed through Gilmore’s hands makes the doll a treasure for Navy history buffs. During World War II, Gilmore commanded a submarine, the USS Growler, that patrolled Alaskan waters before moving to the South Pacific. In 1943, the Growler was damaged while attacking a Japanese convoy. Gilmore was on the bridge when the boat was hit during the battle. Wounded, he sent his crew below and, rather than waste seconds getting himself to safety, stayed topside and issued the order, “Take her down.” He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Even without knowing the doll’s unusual background, as a child Sheffels instinctively felt it was something to look at — not to play with.
“I played with my dolls a lot,” she said. “I knew this one couldn’t be undressed — I think the fur is glued on — but I would sit and look at it, admire it and look closely at the different furs.”
Earlier this year, Sheffels, who was going to attend a meeting in Washington, D.C., called the Museum of the American Indian and asked for an appointment with a curator. She carried photographs of the doll and wrote notes about its history.
The curator kept the photos and notes, and during a curator council meeting — a typical process in each Smithsonian museum — recommended accepting the donation.
Sheffels added that it was friends Joanne and Bob Adamowski who piqued her interest in donating the doll.
A few months ago, Bob Adamowski was cleaning out a closet and pulled out the old flag for the first time. It had been folded when he got it from his parents.
“I opened it up and it looked funny, so I counted the stars and came up with 47. I counted it three or four times, thinking I had made a mistake,” Adamowski said.
Officially, there never was a 47-star U.S. flag, because the flag can be changed only on the Fourth of July. But unofficially, the flag was correct for a few weeks. New Mexico became the 47th state Jan. 6, 1912, and Arizona the 48th state the following Feb. 14. So on July 4, the official flag switched from 46 to 48 stars.
The 47-star flag is so unusual that although New Mexico museums and the Fort McHenry National Monument in Maryland have some, the Smithsonian didn’t.
Adamowski contacted the Smithsonian.
By chance, Marilyn Zoidis, the curator of the Smithsonian’s Star Spangled Banner, was here earlier this year. Adamowski had her examine his flag, and she agreed the 5-by-9-foot wool and linen flag belonged in the national museum’s collection.
Like Sheffels’ doll, Adamowski can only surmise the origin of the flag. His father was in politics — an Illinois state legislator and the state’s attorney for Cook County. None of his immediate relatives lived in New Mexico, so he believes it was either a gift or something his mother collected.
“My mom was a saver,” he said. “She saved everything.”
No matter how unusual, St. Thomas said the Smithsonian doesn’t have room for everything it is offered. Most items are not accepted.
“We go through a whole process before we accept anything — review, documentation just to be sure it isn’t fake,” St. Thomas said. “For instance, every week someone offers something from George Washington. There can’t be that many things from George Washington around.”
Sherry Grindeland: 206-515-5633 or firstname.lastname@example.org