Inheritance “Bugs” at the Smithsonian

Butterfly collectionCarl J Drake spent his life studying bugs, everything from aphids to water striders. When he died in 1965, the entomologist left his life savings and his vast insect collection to the Smithsonian. But now Drake's will has become something of a pest.

The case of the Smithsonian Museum and the entomologist Carl J Drake, as relayed in a recent article in the Guardian titled “Smithsonian Museum is bugging out over insect inheritance,” provides an example of how a gift of charity can actually be a gift of a burden to your institution of choice without the proper plans in place.

Most museums across the globe, including many Houston museums, really only start out and build their vast collections through the largesse of charitable donors. The Smithsonian is no stranger to gifts of the strangest collections with the most peculiar needs and various limiting conditions. That said, Drake’s bug collection is beginning to bug them. The Museum is actually petitioning the courts in an attempt to modify the gift.

Drake left his vast collection of preserved specimen (dead bugs) to the museum through his last will with various rules attached to protect the collection and ensure its preservation. In addition, on top of that, he left his entire fortune to the museum with the express purpose of purchasing new bug collections. Unfortunately, the rules were written several decades ago and they just do not make as much sense anymore. Legal changes have made it hard to buy collections so the money sits and, moreover, the rules regarding the existing collection are as onerous as they are dated. While you can read more in the original article, when it is all said and done, the gift cuts against the museum’s own ability to effectively manage the collection and they lament the waste.

Drake really loved his bugs and he really thought hard about ensuring his collection would live on. It certainly is a motivation we can all appreciate – even the squeamish – and we can also appreciate the amount of planning he did to make the gift. This case illustrates both what you can do intentionally right and what you can do unintentionally wrong. Accordingly, the case is instructive on several levels.

If you have a very specific gift to make there is much to do and think about. Proper planning can mean building your gift with more appreciation for its receipt and longevity.

For additional information about charitable giving in Houston, please visit my website.

ReferenceThe Guardian (June 12, 2014) “Smithsonian Museum is bugging out over insect inheritance




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