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Preservation vs Presentation: is digital display a solution for museums?

1 August 2014

Museums are about objects. I think there are few in the profession who would argue with that, certainly not among curators and conservators. Yet, there is a noticeable tension in the ways in which museums choose to display them. At one extreme, as Crystal Bennes championed last month, museums are increasingly creating galleries of open storage. The V&A ceramics galleries, or the American wing at the Met, are particularly fine examples. At the other, gallery designs are tending towards sparser cases with fewer, but particularly stellar, objects and more and more activities and interactives are being introduced into the gallery space.

Museums hold their collections in trust for the public, and so need to make every object as accessible as possible, and yet accessibility is not just physical, but also intellectual, social, visual and so on. Sometimes less is more. One object may say more than 10. So what’s the future for museum collections?

Treasures at the Natural History Museum

Treasures at the Natural History Museum

Interactives and new technologies can, of course, help to open up collections. Not only are most museum collections now available online, with increasingly comprehensive catalogue information, but digital labelling within the museum itself can allow for more detailed and varied information about an object to be provided. The Natural History Museum’s ‘Treasures’ gallery provides a good example of such an approach, with 22 spectacular objects each accompanied by a digital label providing multiple contexts and interpretive angles.

Digital access can open up fragile and frankly less interesting collections. Some objects need careful handling and controlled conditions to ensure their survival, and the balance between access and custodianship for the next generation is a fine one. Interactive screens at the British Library, for instance, allow the pages of extremely rare books to be turned and enjoyed by the visitor, where the book could not be permanently exposed to light and handling.

Museums are repositories of knowledge in object form, it must be remembered. Like libraries, they cater for scholars as well as public interest, and some collections need to be maintained on that basis. There may be little visual interest in a collection of pottery shards, but such groups of objects can provide crucial research opportunities that then inform the context for more widely interesting items. Sometimes quantity is more important than quality in such research collections, but would hundreds of pottery shards be interesting on public display?

Sometimes it depends on where that display is. A B-grade object in one context can be an A* in another, and digital connections are also allowing museums to share objects between institutions. Effective Collections was a funded programme run by the Museums Association from 2006–12, which created online systems for museums to make stored collections more visible to other institutions, allow loans, and transfer objects to a more suitable home.

There is never any replacement for interaction with the real thing, but museums have always had to strike the careful balance between access and preservation. Collections that might seem unnecessary today may contain crucial research information for tomorrow. Trends in how and what to display are in constant development, and we will never be able to display everything nor, arguably, should we. Comprehensive digital access to the stores is one means we now have of overcoming that tension.

Related Articles

Open the stores: conservation, collections and the museum of the future (Crystal Bennes)

The Art of Digital: Your Paintings, Art Detective and the PCF (Andrew Ellis)

Digital Pathways (Katy Barrett)