Museum Loans, the Back Story

by Scott Scholz, Deputy Director and Curator, Dumbarton House

Have you ever looked at an object label in a museum, noticed it was a loan, and wondered how the museum knew where to find it? As a fledgling curator nearly a decade ago this is something that I wondered about. Now, years later, I understand that it is not so much that curators know where to find every piece, but that they actively share with others in the network what pieces they are specifically looking for.

Over the past several months, while we were packing up the collection at Dumbarton House in preparation for the renovation of the historic house’s HVAC system, I thought a lot about who was preparing exhibitions that I knew about and which of our collection pieces might be beneficial to other institutions. Below are the background stories of how and why Dumbarton House chose to loan out selected pieces while the museum is closed during construction.

Stratford Hall, Virginia

A great example is Stratford Hall on the Northern Neck of Virginia. Working over the past couple years with their curator, Gretchen Goodell Pendelton, I learned that they are reinterpreting their dining room to 1817. This reinterpretation includes the need for furniture of the period that was made in the Baltimore area. Knowing this, I reached out to Gretchen to inform her about a c.1820 drop-leaf dining table in the Dumbarton House collection that was made in Baltimore. After a few telephone calls and emails, this table can now be viewed on display at Stratford Hall for the next year.

Baltimore table on loan to Stratford Hall

Mount Vernon, Virginia

Not all loans come about through need, some emerge through research desires. Dumbarton House is fortunate enough to own 1 of 8 camp cups made by the silversmith, Richard Humphery, for George Washington. Mount Vernon currently has two of these on loan to them from private individuals. Lending our camp cup to Mount Vernon allows both Mount Vernon and Dumbarton House to work collaboratively in researching and understanding the unique similarities and differences of each cup, as well as more specifically their elemental make-up. Using X-ray fluorescence (XRF) to compare the three cups will allow for a better understanding of not only our cup, but also the silver of the period because it is known that all three come from the same order.

George Washington camp cup on loan to           Mount Vernon

Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Another recent research-based loan situation similar to the Washington camp cup research opportunity with Mount Vernon is the Lemoine Sampler – District of Columbia map embroidery – that we lent to Colonial Williamsburg (CW).  Much like the research opportunity availed to us and Mount Vernon through the loan of George Washington’s camp cup, Colonial Williamsburg owns one of the other three known District of Columbia map embroideries which will allow for the first time a direct comparison of the CW sampler made by Eve Resler. Little differences that became immediately apparent in the first five minutes of viewing the Lemoine Sampler at Colonial Williamsburg was the different Lady Liberties used in the two pieces. Both organizations look forward to learning more about our own pieces as well as those from each other.

Kim Ivey (R) and Suzanne Hood (L) of Colonial Williamsburg examine the Lemoine Sampler

Magic Kingdom, Disney, Florida

One final loan to share is the loan of a pair of nubuck gloves worn by President Monroe during his first inauguration in 1817, and the two porcelain vases owned by Dolley Madison to Walt Disney Imagineering for display in the Hall of Presidents in the Magic Kingdom, Orlando, Florida. Through a relationship originally started several years ago at the Southeast Museum Conference (SEMC) annual conference Dumbarton House and the NSCDA learned that Walt Disney Imagineering is often in search of smaller presidential and first lady items for display in the Hall of Presidents. Furthermore, through lending to them we are able to gain recognition of our collection by the millions of visitors to Magic Kingdom every year!  This relationship continues to be a win-win for both organizations for multiple years now.

Jerry Foust with Dolley Madison-owned vase on loan to Disney World

President Monroe nubuck glove on loan to Hall of Presidents, Disney World, Florida

As the old adage goes…

Museums loan to each other and take loans from private individuals all the time. There are also occasions when museums lend to private and corporate organizations as well.  Though lending takes time and effort, the process is in general straightforward and it is worth it – there are huge benefits to all. In the world of museum loans the old adage of “It is not what you know but who you know,” can be added to and become “It is what you know and who you know.”