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FAQ – The Museum Collection

This FAQ addresses questions about the museum collection and online database. If you have a question about something else, please see the other FAQs listed on this page.

To start, what should I know about the museum collection?

Since its establishment in 1846, the Smithsonian has collected a wide range of historical artifacts to preserve for the American people an enduring record of their past. Today at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, we have more than 1.7 million objects in our collection and 22,000 linear feet of archival documents. Many items in our collection can be seen on a visit to the museum in Washington, D.C., or on loan to other museums across the country, but a vast majority are safely stored away as a public trust for future generations.

I’m interested in an item in your online collection, but there is not much information about it, or it lacks an image. Can you provide more information?

We are working hard to add more complete data about our collections, but the reality is that we have a long way to go. Many records only have minimal information. For specific research questions you are welcome to use the comment form at the bottom of collection pages; though we cannot promise a response to all inquiries, they will be forwarded to the curatorial department.

Can I use an image I found in your online collection for a school project or other personal use?

Yes! We encourage users to download images from our website for non-commercial personal or classroom use, without written permission, within the meaning of the principles of “fair use.” Appropriate credit to the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, should appear with the image. Images on our site which are credited to another person or organization may not be used without that party’s permission. Please visit the Smithsonian Institution’s Terms of Use page for more information about allowable uses.

How do I get rights to use a Smithsonian image or other content for a book or for other commercial purposes?

To use any text, image, audio, or video for commercial use, publication, broadcast, documentary, or for any purpose other than fair use as defined by law, you must request and receive prior written permission from the museum. To request permission and/or image reproductions, please visit our Rights and Reproductions page.

I have a similar object to one I see on your website and I would like to know how much it is worth. Can the museum provide an appraisal?

It is against Smithsonian policy to provide appraisal or valuation services. If you are interested in having an item appraised, we recommend you contact the American Society of Appraisers.

I have an artifact that I want to know more about—its age or history, how to repair it or get parts for it, or how to properly take care of it. Can you help?

While we would love to talk with everyone about their personal treasures, unfortunately we do not have adequate time or know-how to answer questions or give advice about each specific item. The Smithsonian offers general information and resources about the care and identification of historical artifacts. Local and state historical societies, libraries, and professional appraisers are also good sources of information.

I know that an item in your collection was made or advertised earlier (or later) than the date you have on the object page. Why does the date appear to be wrong?

The date associated with an item in our collection, such as a commercial product that was available over a number of years, reflects what we know about the date of manufacture or use of the particular example in our possession, rather than the general availability of that type of item or product.

I have an artifact like one on your website. Do you want it? Or what should I do with it?

Generally, we are not looking to acquire an artifact that is the same as one already in our collection. If you have reason to believe it might still be of interest to the museum, see the information elsewhere on this page about how to suggest an object for donation. Otherwise, if you think it’s of significant historical interest, you could try contacting local or regional history organizations, see if there is a market among private collectors, or just keep it as an heirloom.

What is the procedure for donating or loaning items to the museum?

While many artifacts in the national collection are the result of individual donations, only a small percentage of donation offers can be accepted after a rigorous selection process. If you believe you have an item of interest, please send a detailed description, with photos if possible, to inquiry@si.edu. After careful consideration, staff will direct you for further action if your donation is accepted. We generally do not consider unsolicited offers of temporary loans, nor can we promise to display loaned or donated items.

I would like to buy an item that I see on your website.

Most objects pictured on the website are part of the museum collection and are not for sale. We cannot provide suggestions as to where to buy similar items.

Does the fact that you have a particular item in your collection mean it’s rare or valuable?

The museum collects objects for reasons of historical significance. They might document a technological innovation, or help tell a story about people or events of the past. This historical significance may or may not correspond with rarity or monetary value. Sometimes the simplest, most common objects—ones any of us might use or store away as keepsakes—tell the best stories!

I want to know if an object I see on your website is on display at the museum. If not, why not, and when will it be available for viewing?

Only a small percentage of the more than 1.7 million objects in the museum’s collection can be displayed at any one time. Some, particularly materials like paper or textiles, can only be shown for short periods due to their fragility. Collection objects that include a data field for an associated exhibition are generally on display in that exhibition. (Though we strive for accuracy, our record data is not always 100 percent up to date.) For the many objects that are safely tucked away in storage, we are not able to provide specific information about when they might next be on public display.

Someone from my family has donated an object to the museum. Is it available for viewing?

To inquire whether a particular object is available for viewing, contact the museum’s Office of Curatorial Affairs.