The Franklin Institute Artifact Loan Program

Franklin Institute Loan Program


Emily Midwig

Curatorial Staff with Lightning Rods on loan from Josh Sapan (IC2012-001)

How many times have you walked into a museum and been struck by the sheer number of artifacts they have on display to the public?  Would you believe me when I say that a good number of those artifacts you are viewing actually belong to another museum? That is because it is common practice for museums to actively lend out their collections.  We have our very own artifact loan program here at The Franklin Institute run by the Curatorial department.  Within our program we both actively lend, as well as borrow, artifacts from other institutions, like museums.

With over 40,000 objects in our collection, it may be easy to assume we have plenty of items to display, with no need to borrow from another museum.  However, even with such a broad collection, we do not have every artifact we’d like to tell complete stories in an exhibit.  This is where lending institutions come in. With the help from other collections, we are able to provide more comprehensive stories to our visitors. 

How Does an Artifact Loan Start?
An artifact loan always begins with a request.  A formal letter is sent explaining, 1) which artifact is requested for loan, 2) the upcoming gallery it will be displayed in and why it is needed for display, and 3) the length of the loan period.  Once a request is received the Curatorial Department reviews and determines if we would be able to fulfill their request.  There are many factors such as whether the artifact is currently on display in our museum, if it is in good enough condition to travel, and how long a borrower may wish to display the object that goes into determining if an artifact can go on loan.

An Artifact is Approved for Loan, What’s Next?
After an artifact has been approved to be loaned out, the Curatorial Department then drafts an official loan agreement.  Every museum has their own template for this legal document, and it is meant to cover every inch of the artifact loan, from identifying the requested loan objects, their value, the insurance covering the loan, to the loan period length.  This agreement is then signed by both parties.

Once a loan agreement is signed, the Curatorial Department gets to work on preparing the artifact for shipment.  This requires doing an in-depth condition report with images of the artifact. This step is crucial, because it allows staff to record how the object left the Institute and can help determine if any signs of wear or damage occur while out on loan.  Typically, anywhere from 20-100 images of a single artifact are taken to record its current condition. If an artifact requires conservation work to make it display ready, this is when that work would take place.  Crates are also created to safely ship the artifact to its temporary location.

Once ready to be transported, typically, Curatorial staff will travel with the artifacts to the borrowing museum to assist with installation in the new gallery.  That way, staff can perform another condition report, after travel, and take photos of the artifact being installed for the loaned objects files.

What Current Artifact Loans does The Franklin Institute Have?
The Franklin Institute currently has 16 active outgoing loans to borrowing institutions.  The longest current outgoing artifact loan is with the Firemans Hall Museum in Philadelphia.  They have been borrowing our Brass Telegraph (Catalog # 4822) since 1982.  The most recent outgoing loan is the Lightning Rod (Catalog # 740) to the National Museum of American History, SI in Washington, DC.  This loan was initiated back in 2018 and was lent out in 2021.  The Franklin Institute lends artifacts to other institutions such as the Wright Brothers National Memorial, the National Air & Space Museum, South Carolina State Museum, and U.S. Life Saving Station #30.

We also currently have 16 active incoming loans from lending institutions.  The longest current incoming artifact loan is the 3-blade propeller currently on display in Franklin Airshow.  This artifact has been on loan to the Institute from the National Museum of the United States Air Force since 1970.  In contrast, the newest incoming artifact loan is the 3D printed motorcycle, currently on display in the Tech Studio, which is being lent to the Institute by TE Connectivity since 2021. 

There are many artifacts on display throughout the museum from lending institutions.  Next time you are here, try and spot which artifacts are on loan, it may just surprise you.

Emily Midwig

About the author

Emily Midwig ,
Collections Manager

As The Franklin Institute’s Collections Manager, Emily is responsible for the day-to-day care of the museum’s 40,000 collection items.  She also manages the Institute’s Artifact Loan Program, as well as their two scientific journals.  She believes every artifact has a story to tell.