Having worked in a museum (New Mexico Mineral Museum at NM Tech in Socorro) I learned the availability of of a museum collection serves research, archiving, entertainment, and preservation. Another lesson learned is museums are broke most of the time and often specimens we’d really like for the museum go to a private collector with the funds to pay the asking price.

And that’s not a bad thing.

Preservation and archiving are immediately addressed by a private collector. Research and entertainment are also satisfied. Most private collectors are thrilled to share their collection with the public and researchers. Who doesn’t like to show off their stuff to people who will appreciate their collection? And often private collectors bring their collection to the public at shows and symposia. So a private collection isn’t a “black hole” with specimens never to seen again. Far from it.

For me, preservation is the most important aspect of a curated collection. And while folks don’t want to hear this, in my experience most museums are ill-prepared for the type of specimen preservation needed. Climate control, pest control, air filtration, etc. And as said, underfunded. None of these preservation issues are a concern for a wealthy private collector.

And folks don’t like hearing this one either. Often, private collectors are better curators than museum curators in terms of knowledge and access to important specimens, the types of specimens that are never offered to a museum.

My belief is mineral specimens must go where they have the best chance of preservation, and honestly private collections are better suited than most museums.

And to again comment on the “black hole” myth of private collections, let me share that the core of the Smithsonian mineral collection is that of mining engineer Washington Roebling. He travelled extensively through the United States purchasing specimens for his private collection from then-active mining districts, preserving minerals that otherwise would have ended up in the ore crusher. My folks know Washington Roebling as the engineer who built the a
Brooklyn Bridge (and the first incidents of nitrogen necrosis of bridge laborers). Roebling curated one of the most important mineral collections in history by his love of minerals with the funds and drive museums didn’t possess. And like many private collectors, their collection is bequeathed to a museum upon death. This is commonplace.

The point is, if not for private collectors, important specimens and artifacts would be lost. And artifacts like this sign are going to be sold regardless of the public’s ethical issues with private collections.

I’m satisfied that preservation is even happening at all. Would it be preferable if the signs were restored in situ? You bet. But it isn’t happening and we’re losing signs to property owners who don’t care about the signs and simply razing the signs instead of selling the signs.

These signs are private property and the owner has the right to dispose of the signs as they want. In many cases, the signs are sold for money, which is a very private American tradition.

One way to compete with private collectors is to have a funding collaborative at the ready so when a sign becomes available for sale a museum can outbid the private collector. This is also a very American tradition.

What I’m saying as long as the signs are preserved, the short term ethical issues will fade to the greater need to make sure these signs don’t end up in a landfill.

And as a truly great example of a private collector’s estate understanding of preservation…

The Getty Center.

And admission is free. You just pay a nominal parking fee.