Jasper Hart, 15.10.18
Where to put collections when they’re not on display is a constant, and constantly changing, area of work
Storage is a crucial issue for all museums, particularly as many collections are growing and approaches to conservation and display are constantly evolving. Museums, in addition to having to satisfy the environmental conditions for conservation, have been increasingly making sure that their storage centres are efficient and accessible spaces not only for staff, but visitors as well.
Although the number of visits to stored collections is far lower than to museums themselves, it has been growing in recent years, partly because museums have promoted the fact that the public can visit their storage facilities. This may be a reaction to the fact that, with up to 90% of museum collections in the UK being in storage, questions have been raised about the benefits of museums having so many items that are hidden from view.
But there is also a desire to make the best use of an institution’s assets, which is part of a wider aim to increase accessibility across the sector.
Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) recently opened its new Prince Philip Maritime Collections Centre (PPMCC) in Kidbrooke, near Greenwich, with environmentally controlled rooms and specialised racking for its collections. The building has 4,200 sq metres (45,000 sq feet) of space spread over two floors, 300 sq metres of which will be devoted to public access programming and collections access. Space for conservation and restoration work is far superior to what the organisation had before.
The £12m project received half of its funding from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and is one of the three main parts of the RMG’s wider Endeavour Project, which also included a programme to free up space for existing galleries and the creation of four new public galleries.
Part of the reasoning behind the PPMCC’s construction was the unsuitability of the previous storage facility, which shared space with a brewery, resulting in stifled transport access and limited access to the upper floors for members of the public.
“We wanted an opportunity to create new storage that would improve conditions, and most importantly improve access to the collection,” says Jenny Crothall, the collections project coordinator at the National Maritime Museum. “We had a break in the lease of the old store, so it was time to come out of that building, combined with a need for our conservation department to come out of the old Victorian building they occupied.
“We also wanted to improve the way we worked, to improve our efficiency by having photography, collection storage and conservation on one site.”
The old buildings hosted viewings for members of the public in small groups and by appointment, but Crothall hopes that the new centre will attract people in greater numbers.
“A real driver behind moving and re-storing the collections was to focus on access,” Crothall says. “We spent a long time thinking about the logistics of the building and the design of the stores themselves so we could allow groups of people to come into the stores and look at objects.
“We’re developing our public programme now, but we’re hoping to have a range of behind-the-scenes tours on different themes and we’re looking at school sessions.”
The PPMCC’s move to centralise is mirrored by Doncaster Central Library and Museum’s £15m project. This will see a new building in the city centre acting as a central hub for four services (Doncaster Central Library, Doncaster Archives, Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery, and the Schools Library Service), which are currently in four separate buildings.
“The archive building is in Balby, about a mile and a half away from the town centre in a former school building that isn’t fit for purpose,” says Nick Stopforth, the head of libraries and culture for Doncaster Council. “As a result, people who would really benefit from its resources do not access it. It’s the same with our Central Library, which is a 1960s building that was not built as a library.”
Centralising also brings financial benefits – the hub will save money through “a more efficient building running a range of services rather than all the overheads associated with three or four buildings,” says Stopforth.
The project will see the old museum building, which will be across the road from the new central hub, become the archive storage facility. This way, Stopforth hopes, the two buildings will be seen for the shared relationship they have.
“I think they’re equally prominent – I don’t see archives or museums being a greater or lesser partner,” Stopforth says. “I see them working together in an integrated way to tell the stories of the people of the borough and the place.
“I would like people to be inspired by our displayed collection in the new building, but then go across to the full archive in what is now the current museum and do more in-depth research about the borough’s history or their own family history, for example.”
Systems and infrastructure
The Science Museum Group (SMG) is also investing in a new collections management facility at its existing National Collections Centre in Wroughton, Wiltshire. When it opens in 2023 it is expected to house around 80% of SMG’s collection (including those of the Science Museum, London; National Science and Media Museum, Bradford; Science and Industry Museum, Manchester; National Railway Museum, York; and Locomotion in Shildon).
The facility is intended to help SMG staff prepare objects for display in new galleries and exhibitions in its museums, and to make more items available for loan to other organisations in the UK and around the world. It will also make the collections open to the public for the first time through tours and school visits.
“This efficient, humidity-controlled facility will set a new benchmark for sustainable collection care,” says Matt Moore, the head of SMG’s National Collections Centre. “Alongside a huge storage hall, the facility will contain conservation laboratories, research spaces, photography studios and flexible spaces that can meet the needs of different users.
“Designed with public access to the collection in mind, the facility will open regularly from 2023 for public tours, school and research visits, enabling much of the Science Museum Group Collection to be regularly seen by the public for the first time.”
The Museums Association is running Open Up: Making More of Stored Collections at the British Museum on 3 December, exploring new approaches to designing and utilising museum stores. Click here for more.
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