How can I preserve Douglas Adams' typewriter?
July 16, 2008 5:51 AM   Subscribe

How can I preserve Douglas Adams' typewriter for the ages? And more generally, how do museums handle item donations and loans?

The typewriter on which Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy is for sale.

I'm sorely tempted to buy it (how often does something like this come up for sale?!), but a) I wouldn't have a clue how to store or preserve it; and b) an artefact like this should really be on display in a museum somewhere.

So my question is - if I bought the typewriter, how would I go about loaning it to a museum? And more generally, how do museums deal with offers of loans or donations?

(I'm actually semi-serious about this. If you have any contacts in museums who I could talk to, shoot me a MeFi-mail.)
posted by The Shiny Thing to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Main thing is, if you're sure you want it, buy it NOW and figure out storage while it's in the mail. Seriously — this isn't the dotcom boom anymore, but I think you'll still find a lot of well-heeled Douglas Adams fans out there.
posted by electric_counterpoint at 6:32 AM on July 16, 2008

Best answer: The thing would have to fit the mission of the particular museum, so you need a place with some kind of literary orientation. Museums don't want to own or display random things any more (as they once did -- a brick from the Great Wall of China might be displayed alongside a piece of fabric from the Wright Brothers' first plane -- but audiences are not interested in that kind of "cabinet of curiosities" approach anymore).

I can't really imagine a museum being terribly interested in this object, unless or until there is a Douglas Adams house museum somewhere. But, have a look at the typewriter-related museums listed here. (And other links of possible interest on that page.)

That price seems exorbitant to me. This is not Hemingway's typewriter we're talking about. But, by way of comparison, Christy Brown's alleged typewriter was valued at 15,000 Euros, Quentin Crisp's was estimated at 1,000 pounds UK.

Generally, museums will be happier with donations than with loans, and depending where you are, you may get tax benefits for donations but not for loans. In any event I would not expect a museum to pay you to buy or display this item.
posted by beagle at 6:45 AM on July 16, 2008

You can contact the development department at the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in Seattle (its nice, I went a few months ago) here:

development {at}


They can probably connect you to their item/individual donor people and you can talk to them about this.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:51 AM on July 16, 2008

Also, this is considered a pretty large gift. That is, if it is in fact worth 25k. Douglas has not been inducted into this Hall of Fame. You can give the gift with the condition that he is nominated for 2009.

Standard disclaimer about authenticity goes here.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:59 AM on July 16, 2008

It's not worth the risk. It was owned by by Adams during the period but there is no evidence he wrote Hitchiker's on it, other than the meaningless hyperbole from the dealer. He may have written something on it, or it may have been a typewriter left at his house by someone else that ended up lying in his garage before he donated it to a charity. There is no way of knowing and for that reason I'd steer clear. It is no more than a signed object once owned by Adams, albeit one with an obvious association to the man and his profession.

"It is as certain as can be that Adams wrote his most famous work 'The Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy' on this Hermes Standard 8"

IE - not certain in the slightest.
posted by fire&wings at 7:04 AM on July 16, 2008

a friend of a friend was given a (this?) typewriter by Adams to auction for charity. mefimail me, and I will attempt to track them down.
posted by scruss at 7:36 AM on July 16, 2008

Response by poster: Fire&Wings - you've got a point there.

Is this one of those things that are just unverifiable, or are there ways to authenticate things like this?
posted by The Shiny Thing at 8:39 AM on July 16, 2008

Is this one of those things that are just unverifiable, or are there ways to authenticate things like this?

Find out what is the basis for the claim. If Adams himself said so, I'd believe it.

Or perhaps it was the only typewriter he was known to have owned at the time. That would be good enough for me too.

Or perhaps someone whose word can be trusted saw him using this typewriter for the book. That would be the best evidence possible, now that we can't ask Douglas Adams himself.

But historical facts can't be proven like scientific facts. It is unlikely that undeniable evidence exists.
posted by winston at 8:58 AM on July 16, 2008

While it would be more trouble than it's worth, if someone had access to the original manuscript, it should be at least possible to link it to the typewriter that wrote it, though you might need a friend that works at the FBI.
posted by drezdn at 9:01 AM on July 16, 2008

And more generally, how do museums deal with offers of loans or donations?

The prospective donor sends an offer of donation in writing to the curator of the appropriate collection, preferably with information on provenance (how do you know it is Douglas Adams's typewriter? How can you document how it got from him to you?) and with good photographs. Depending on the museum's collections policy, some group including the curator of the most relevant collection, the museum director, and members of the museum's board will meet as a collections committee to formally accession the item. In the US, the IRS prohibits museums from appraising items donated to them; if you want a tax deduction, you will have to contract with an appraiser on your own.
posted by nonane at 9:56 AM on July 16, 2008

Best answer: Beagle and nonane have it. An additional point is that not only have collections policies gotten narrower and more stringent, but loaning is now very rarely done. The risks of loaning are too great on both owner and loanee, and insurance prices have become far too expensive to take that risk for something like a typewriter that, regardless of who owned it, are not unique.

Loans also get very, very sticky. Because the owner continues to feel ownership, sometimes the owner believes s/he should be able to dictate the terms of display for the object, or to come remove it from display whenever s/he wants it, or is disappointed if the item isn't put on display at all. The negotiations around this are costly and time-consuming, and two resources museums have little of are money and time. So loaning has become far more rare.

This wouldn't be a good purchase. For what it's worth, I work in museums, and just about every week we get offered something that the owner thinks "should be in a museum." As beagle says, in their formative years, formal museums used to take just about everything. The museum world has reached a phase where deaccessioning, refusing accessions, strict collections policies, and decline of loans are far more common than acceptance. It costs a lot of money to accession an object, because it goes through a formal process of registration which requires skilled staff time to photograph it, document it, and index the record. Then it also costs money to store the object appropriately for an indefinite period of time that we have to assume to be eternity. And it costs more money to prepare it for display and put it on exhibit. Because we have all become more conservative about our resources, it's far less common that museums encourage object donations as a means of acquisition. Today, known exhibit planning needs, strategic and interpretive plans, and collections policies drive the decisions about whether to take on responsibility for an object.
posted by Miko at 10:16 AM on July 16, 2008

Probably the biggest, richest purchaser of literary artifacts like this is the Harry Ransom Center at UT (New Yorker article about them), but it does seem a little too lowbrow for their permanent collection. I'm not saying they wouldn't ever entertain a loan of the item (especially if it's authenticated by Adams), but I doubt they would seek it out.
posted by mattbucher at 10:18 AM on July 16, 2008

Best answer: Is this one of those things that are just unverifiable, or are there ways to authenticate things like this?

This is a question about provenance. The concept of provenance starts with the understanding that we really can't know anything directly about the past - we weren't there. So our statements and beliefs about the past have to be supported by some evidence. Provenance is a continuum: it's thought of in degrees off certainty or strength.

A very low degree of certainty is someone's spoken statement that the object is, for instance, the very typewriter that Adams wrote the book on. The closer the witness was to the person, though, the stronger degree of certainty of the provenance. This ebay dude is not a strong witness to the provenance of this item, but someone like Adams' wife or secretary would be.

Far better than a verbal statement is a composed written statement in the witness' own words. A signed statement by a person who saw Adams use the typewriter to write his books would be more valuable than a casual spoken statement. Again, value would be greater based on the nature of the relationship of the person to Adams' work, and how likely they'd be to prevaricate or to know his true habits.

Other documentation further strengthens the degree of strength of provenance. For instance, a store receipt showing the purchase of the typewriter just before the time he was known through other sources to write the book. Or a direct statement in Adams' own words mentioning that he wrote the book on this specific typewriter, or something like a mention in the book's introduction like "Thank you to my Hermes Standard 8," or a reporter's mention in a magazine profile that as he conducted the interview, Adams was working away on his manuscript on his Hermes Standard 8.

A very strong support would be a photograph of Adams at work on the book's manuscript (clearly identifiable) using a typewriter that gives every indication of being the same one.

The more evidence, the stronger the degree of certainty. The less evidence, the weaker the provenance.

This is why in good museums, you'll read labels carefully worded to say "This hat is believed to be the one worn by the Marquis de Lafayette" or "A mirror like this might have hung above the mantel," or "family tradition holds that this pistol was given to the governor by Sitting Bull." Where provenance is weak, we really try to qualify the statements we make about objects.

For this typewriter, the seller refers to some "supporting provenance," but it doesn't look like he can prove that Adams composed the work on this machine. He says "It is as certain as can be that Adams wrote his most famous work 'The Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy' on this Hermes Standard 8. " I think it could actually be more certain. That language indicates he doesn't have anything that clinches it, though it sounds as though there is every reason in the world to believe that it was Adams' and that Adams wrote on it. If I had to write the museum label for this, I'd be sure to use a phrase like "It's likely that Adams wrote his most famous work...." or "Adams probably wrote his most famous work..."
posted by Miko at 10:34 AM on July 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Basically, I think this would be far more appreciated by a private collector than by any museum or library I can think of. Though a sci-fi collection somewhere might really want it - I have no knowledge of that area, though.

However, almost any museum would balk at that insanely ridiculous price. It's priced for the private market.
posted by Miko at 10:35 AM on July 16, 2008

Response by poster: Mefi delivers the goods again. Thanks everyone - there's some great information here. (And I'm never going to be able to walk past a museum label again without looking for the words "likely" or "probably"...)
posted by The Shiny Thing at 3:19 PM on July 16, 2008

Provenance wise, alarm bells ring for me because they have coupled the typewriter with the first edition of Hitchhikers without any concrete evidence the two are linked. A signed typewriter from the right era - the seller would be cheating himself if he didn't wait for the Hitchhikers 1st edition to come along before selling. It's not immediately dodgy, but the typewriter that wrote Hitchhikers would stand on it's own merit - here it is being lent additional credence by the rare book. Both are valuable in their own right but put together with the dealers suggestion and they create a very attractive package, probably more valuable than the two items sold seperately.

A signed Paul McCartney bass guitar is valuable, shell out another £100 for an original Cavern Club ticket, flyer and review from a local newspaper, and the two can be lumped together alongside some vague hyperbole and you have doubled the value of the guitar by associating it with a specific gig. There is no real provenance in that case, but collectors will shell out big time for items that can be placed in context, and heart will always rule the head, so it's easy for the dealers.

I see similar stuff on eBay all the time. Good, rare and valuable military medals cobbled together with run of the mill uniforms and other generic items like vintage photographs to create an "archive" which adds poignancy and therefore value to the original items.
posted by fire&wings at 3:20 PM on July 16, 2008

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