A family day at the London Transport Museum Depot in Acton. Photo: London Transport Museum

Open up the door

Jasper Hart, 15.10.2018

The move towards open storage continues

It is well known that the objects on display in museums are only a fraction of their entire collections, and while there is no exact figure for the number of objects in public collections across the UK in storage or archives, estimates frequently put it at more than 90%. 

In recent years more and more museums have tried to make their stores more accessible to the public. Glasgow Museum Resource Centre (GMRC) is a pioneering example of this, allowing members of the public access to its 1.4 million objects, and bringing parts of its stored collections to people who are unable to visit, through its Open Museum initiative

Other prominent museums offering public visits to their stores include the London Transport Museum, whose Acton depot opens for guided tours and special weekend events, and Beamish Museum in County Durham, which has been running an open store for five years. 

The Victoria and Albert Musuem is planning V&A East, an 18,000 sq metre (195,000 sq feet) space at Stratford Waterfront in East London that will make more of the museum’s collection open to the public.

Open stores allow people to get a sense of the scale of an institution’s collection, to understand the work that goes on behind the scenes, and to discover some of its more eclectic pieces. 

However, it is not entirely clear how popular stores are to visitors: a University College London study from 2008 noted a low number of visitors to collections, yet highlighted an increasing public demand to visit them. A greater focus on opening collections up to the public by museums would suggest an increase in interest across the UK since the study.

One museum that has recently decided to make its stores public is Paisley Museum in Renfrewshire, in part to maintain the museum’s visibility while £42m works to extend the current building take place – although after the museum reopens in 2022 the stores will remain open as well.

The decision was made after Renfrewshire Council ran successful pilot open days earlier this year. 

“On one day we had 570 people through [the stores] in four hours so for us this is vital to maintain public awareness of the collections,” says Christine McLean, the heritage manager at Renfrewshire Leisure. 

McLean is hoping that moving the public stores to a location on Paisley High Street will build on that number, highlighting both the museum’s collection and the relationship between the front- and back-of-house activities of the museum.

“It’s a conscious decision to locate more of the facilities right on High Street: to be visible, accessible, and to create a heritage trail up the street.”

The new store also meets the need to rehouse the collections in an environmentally appropriate building: unlike the old store, the new unit is purpose-built.

Some of McLean’s team members have previously worked at GMRC, and she also has experience of public tours from working at National Museums Scotland. 

“We did research visits to see how other stores operated”, she says. “We’re always learning new things and looking at different ways we can use this store, while still obviously balancing its core function – to be safe and environmentally controlled.”

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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20.10.2018, 17:44
This is an exciting trend and long may it continue. With the continuing decline in financial support to many museums, it makes sense to 'exhibit' storage collections and reduce storage costs. I do believe people will want to see collections/objects which are in storage, and accept they may not be to the highest standard...so long as the organisation makes it clear to the visitors, so as to manage expectations from the outset. I intend to suggest this approach to my fellow trustees for our museum.