Copyright © 1998, Neal McEwen
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It is unrealistically optimistic to leave a telegraph collection of even modest size to a museum and expect it to remain intact. Most museums do not understand the technology and history represented and hence do not appreciate the collection. Very rare is the curator who shares the same passion and love of keys that we do. He is not going to give the instruments the care and display them the way that we would wish.
Museums are not interested in complete collections of almost any collectable. They are interested in one or two representative items. This is especially true for technology items. The public is not interested in seeing every kind of key and bug that was ever made. They might be interested in a small display with a few historical notes. Hence the curator will have no need for the balance of even a modest collection.
There are no guarantees concerning the status of your keys if you give them to a museum. Unless you leave an endowment for the perpetual care of your keys, it is likely they will be put in storage or sold as surplus inventory. The proceeds from the sale of our keys may go for buying paper towels. This is hardly a glamorous thought, but not far from reality. Museums, public and private come and go. Their backers and leadership changes. Small museums come and go. They are usually the passion of one person. When that person has a shift in life's priorities, the museum and the contents are gone.
If we feel compelled to leave something to a museum, then we should leave them a few items such that the museum can assemble a small telegraph office or depot. This is only a small piece of most collections. If the pieces are relegated to storage or become surplus, not a whole lot of harm is done.
Most of us, as collectors, enjoy studying our keys, showing them to visitors and giving talks about our keys. Our keys are a source of pleasure, not only for us, but for others. There is definitely a way to perpetuate this; the best way to insure further enjoyment of your collection, is to have it go to other collectors.
Collectors share a passion and have a bond. I have quite a few items obtained from first generation collectors and I feel having their keys give me some sort of connection to previous collectors. We as collectors are caretakers of the keys we have in our collection. The keys have a home and caretaker for a few decades until they pass on to the next generation of collectors.
How to pass the keys on to the next generation is a matter of personal and financial choice. You can will or sell your keys to an individual or individuals,... perhaps a combination. It behooves all of us to have a small three ring binder with specific instructions on how to dispose of our collections. Remind your heirs where this binder is. The instructions should contain an inventory with approximate value, and at least two parties (hopefully knowledgeable key collectors) who can help the family dispose of the items. You should also list potential buyers. Update the instructions now and then. You might outlive your executors.
Another option is to dispose of our collections ourselves. As we advance in age we can down size our collections. It does not have to all be done at once. We can dispose of some pieces and hang on to a few favorites. This takes a large burden off the family. Furthermore, we can make sure our keys are disposed of exactly the way we want to. We can even find them good homes with younger collectors we have come to know.
Hopefully, you have also given thought about the disposal of your collection when the time comes.