I have been reading with interest the various articles and opinions on the decision by the University of Hartford to dispose of the DeWitt political collection. Before I begin I want to put forward several disclaimers, first I am a collector so I might have an interest in several of the items should they become available, second, I have never seen the collection but have heard from friends who have (and they say it is wonderful!) , third, I have no affiliation with the University.
This situation should have never occurred for a number of reasons but first and foremost it illustrates why an institution should be careful not to go beyond their core mission, in this instance, education, and venture into an area beyond their expertise, i.e. becoming a museum.
Second, if a collector is going to donate something of value they must make the proper provisions for its long term care. It is not enough to donate an item and allow others to care for it. There should be provisions for cataloging, proper care (and storage) and where and how to display it. One without the other leads to these types of problems.
It is hard to blame the University for what is happening. Who knows what pressure they were under to accept it in the first place? But the bigger problem is that without the dedicated funding for preservation and display what resources can/should they use? If they began to divert University funds I could see the criticism from students and faculty alleging misuse of funds. In addition, to preserve and display a collection of this size requires an annual budget. How is this money to be raised? Very few grants support ongoing ventures and continue from year to year. So the University is in a quandary. Without the funds they can do nothing and yet are open to the criticism that they are allowing the collection to deteriorate over time.
It appears that they decided that the more prudent approach is to remove the financial burden (and moral responsibility for the collection’s well-being) by selling it. It has been reported that they have tried to keep the collection intact by selling it as a whole. But to date there have been no takers. So the only reasonable option is to auction it as individual items. While breaking up the collection may sound like a horrible alternative it is probably better then keeping it in storage and out of sight.
Unless some of the deep-pocket collectors could acquire, preserve and display it, what is the benefit to leaving it in storage? Let it go to auction where it will be sought-after by those who will treasure and protect it! And imagine the outcry if a select few where to cherry pick items of interest while the remainder stays out of view.
I note that a number of individuals have criticized the proposal to sell. But if the only goal is to keep it stored away for years to come what’s the point? Is it not better to disperse it then store it? If individuals are going to fight the sale then come up with a plan to fully fund the collection so that others can enjoy it for years to come.