How to Donate Heirlooms to a Historical Society

What and Where to Donate

If you're considering donating an heirloom to a historical society, the first thing you need to do is figure out exactly what you've got. Whose was it? When was it used? What was its purpose? The more you know about the item, the easier it'll be to find a group interested in acquiring it.

You can donate just about anything: old cars, furniture, jewelry, books, clothes and even entire buildings. However, it's often the least valuable heirlooms that are the most sought-after. Stefanie Joyner, Executive Director of the Cherokee County Historical Society in Canton, Ga., believes that many potential treasures are tossed out in the trash. She urges people to consider donating their old items before throwing them away. "Most historic items do have value to someone," she says. According to Joyner, "What may not be important to you could be extremely valuable to historical teachers." That goofy old photo of your uncle, for example, might not seem like an important artifact, but because the farmhouse he's standing in front of is now a parking lot, that picture is a one-of-a-kind window into your community's past -- funny face and all.

Once you've educated yourself about the heirloom, you can start seeking a society that will to put it to good use. Take your dear old great-aunt's butter churn, for instance. You'll probably find several societies that might be interested in it. However, these groups won't accept just any old thing, and since dairy-specific historical societies aren't exactly spread all over, you should try to find a group that's focused on the locality where your great-aunt lived and churned. You could also try contacting that state's historical society. If you don't have any luck there, try farm- or food-focused historical societies. You should also reach out to societies from the heirloom's point of origin, so if your great-aunt purchased the churn in Wisconsin, there's a good chance the Wisconsin State Historical Society or a smaller county- or town-specific group in that state would be interested in acquiring the item.

Let's say you wind up with several offers. In this case, you should select the society where the item could be best put to use. If the director of a state-focused society agrees to take the butter churn, but he says it's unlikely the item will ever be displayed, consider giving it to a smaller, more specific historical society that may be able to offer your donation more prominence. After all, no one is going to learn from heirlooms that just sit around collecting dust.