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Open the stores: conservation, collections and the museum of the future

13 June 2014

A recent visit to Lima’s well-known museum of pre-Columbian art and artefacts, the privately-owned Museo Larco, reminded me of an old gripe: the fact that museums are like icebergs, the vast bulk of their collections are hidden.

After snaking through several dozen beautifully appointed rooms, each glittering with treasure, we were directed to another series of rooms on the opposite side of a pleasant courtyard. Unlike the neatly-ordered display cases in the main section of the museum, the shelves in these rooms were groaning under the weight of thousands of objects. Case after case of clay pots, vases, figures and drinking cups; all freely open to public view. No appointment necessary, no white gloves required – the open stores of the Museo Larco were a pleasant surprise.

My visit to the Larco stands in sharp contrast to my other experiences with museum stores. While undertaking an MA in Classics at King’s College London, we were taken, as a small group of students, to look at stored documents in the British Library. A white-gloved archivist unrolled a scroll – ancient Egyptian, if I remember correctly – but wouldn’t let us anywhere near it, as if the mere act of being in the same room with such an object was education enough.

During my PhD, I had better luck in Paris. In the French National Archives, I was able to call up boxes of letters, school records and other strange papers from the 1600s and 1700s to peruse at my leisure – no gloves required. Of course, unlike the Museo Larco, where all are welcome to view the museum’s stores, my ability to access 18th-century documents in Parisian archives was thanks to my academic pursuits. Nevertheless, despite what British museums would have us believe, restricting broader public access to collections for purposes of preservation isn’t orthodox everywhere.

The question of opening up museum stores is not new; neither is it without complication. Museums continue to face funding cuts, making it difficult to conceive of spending a great deal of additional money on the extra staffing, security and space required to open stored collections to the public. Nevertheless, a BBC Freedom of Information request revealed that in 2009 and 2010, the British Museum alone spent some £86,000 keeping an unbelievable 99% of its collection in storage, ‘preserving it for future generations’ as their press releases often state.

There’s a certain irony that in attempting to preserve their collections for future generations, many of London’s major museums prohibit the current generation from enjoying and experiencing the objects.

Significant financial donations have allowed the British Museum, at least, to begin to rectify the vast gap between collections in storage and those available for public viewing. They tell me that their soon-to-open World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre will ‘bring more of the study collection on site, and therefore more accessible to the public through the study rooms’. They also pointed out that visitors can make an appointment to request viewings of objects not on permanent display in the main building. The new Centre is a potentially promising step in the right direction, yet it remains unclear just how much more of currently stored collections will actually be made accessible to the public.

Even more promising is the new ceramics gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where every piece from the ceramics collection is displayed in open stores. While, again, only 10% of the V&A’s collections are on display, there are other encouraging signs emanating from within. For example, the recently opened Clothworkers’ Centre provides open access to the V&A’s entire dress and textile collection. ‘In the future, though,’ says Kieran Long, Senior Curator of Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital at the museum, ‘we aim to remove every barrier possible between the public and the collections…There’s a special intimacy that comes from encountering an object first hand. I personally believe we can trust the public more with things, and perhaps it might even be worth changing our policies on conservation to enable such access.’

Indeed, while the preservation of sensitive, historical objects for future generations or for academic study is certainly a worthy endeavour, we must make it our goal to open stored collections to the public. It’s perhaps a cliché, but too often curators and conservators remain fixated on the need to hide objects away for safekeeping. It’s difficult to argue with the figures, however. The balance between storage and display should be better than a ratio of 1–10% on show and 90–99% in closed stores. The point becomes more acute with regards to publicly funded institutions, for surely the responsibility to share knowledge is just as strong as the responsibility to conserve it.

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One comment

  1. Okay, I get what the author is trying to say, that we need to break down the proverbial walls of the traditional museum and make it easier to see more of the cool stuff inside, but I still have some problems with this article.

    Firstly, she compares the ‘white-gloved’ handling and viewing of a much older papyrus scroll to the handling of more robust 18th- and 17th-century paper materials. Somehow because the British Library didn’t let her (and the rest of her group) touch the scroll, this means that it’s easier to handle materials in the French National Archives? That’s comparing apples to oranges, really.

    Secondly, it’s probably a lot easier to create ‘visible storage’ spaces for typical museum objects such as ceramics or paintings. For most of these objects, there is no need to manipulate the object to observe it and glean the majority of information needed by the typical researcher. In other words, you don’t have to turn the page of a ceramic vessel to view it fully, like you do a multi-page letter or book or other paper item. In this case, visible storage does not require any additional handling of the items. It lets the public see the objects, and ‘experience’ them without having to make appointments with curators for a private viewing as you would in an archives or special collections library.

    Thirdly, I think her complaint about all the ‘white glove’-ness of her experiences at the British Library belies a lack of understanding about the fragility of certain materials. Training people to properly handle particularly fragile items takes time, and staff time is money, and having to repair the damage caused by mishandling is more money. One of the solutions to this is potentially more digitisation projects. Having a digital surrogate can provide a satisfactory virtual experience of the object, and if done well it can replicate both the actual haptic experience as well as the textual/visual information contained within.

    In conclusion, I sympathise with the author’s frustration about having such a large percentage of museum and library collections ‘hidden away’ from public view, but there are good reasons for a lot of it. Some museums are doing a better job of making more of their collection accessible to the public, but not all collections are good candidates for visible storage. Digital surrogates can help reveal those items which otherwise are not safe for handling by the untrained public. However, I think describing the preservation of cultural heritage as a ‘need to hide objects away for safekeeping’ paints conservators and curators in an unfairly negative light, as though we are squirrelling away these objects out of our own selfishness. We are protecting them the best way we know how, to the best of our abilities, with limited funding and resources.

    Your desire to handle a papyrus scroll just to collect bragging rights does not trump our need to preserve that scroll so it can still be viewed by the many generations that will come after you.

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