The issue of storage for museums is the metaphorical elephant in the room. It takes up a lot of space, but museums feign its absence. Some museums have taken defensive action moving collections out of the main site or creating tokenistic open storages. But bloated by acquisitions and bequests, most large museum collections only continue to grow. The issue of storage needs urgent action.
Many of the objects in collections are consigned to storage because they are fragile or sensitive to light or humidity. There are also damaged objects, copies, and objects whose attribution or provenance is in question. The justifications for retaining these objects (in storage) are rather weak.
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Take the British Museum for example. Only 80,000 out of the 8 million objects in its collection (around 1%) are on public display and less than 4000 objects were loaned annually on an average. In 2014, when it publicly released its new building development plans, the report revealed that just 23% of the space was occupied by galleries while 60% of the space was used by back-of-house, including storage. Since then, the museum has announced plans for a £64 million project to set up a new 15,500-square-meter storage facility outside of London. The approach, apart from being a questionable capital outlay, is not in sync with the times.
Museums should downsize storage for commercial, environmental, social and ethical reasons. Post-pandemic with their revenues ravaged, they need to take a hard look at the fixed and hidden costs of storage and weigh it against its academic objectives. They must do so empirically, assessing on a case-by-case basis which objects were actually utilized for research, conservation, or loans in the recent past without bending to curatorial whims.
Museums facing these issues could take a leaf out of Indianapolis Museum of Art’s collection ranking project which graded their works based on their cultural value from A to D (A being indispensable and D being disposable).
With growing calls for repatriation of colonial era objects and against illegal trafficking of antiquities, hiding them away from public view in a chamber of secrets is doubly unethical. Museums in the future will find they must place their physical objects on loan to other public museums or repatriate them for the greater good. Also, museums with their legacy infrastructure have much to do to lower their carbon footprint, and harboring large parts of their collection in storage under costly temperature and humidity controls while underutilizing them again makes them culpable on multiple counts.
Ultimately, rethinking storage is not about deaccessioning alone; it starts with stringent acquisition policies, made transparent by comprehensive disclosure about the objects’ provenance and kept unbiased through periodic review involving third party experts. In cases like the Smithsonian where artefacts and specimens in storage closely supplement displays, enabling public access is also necessary. Museums need to realize that now is their best chance to address the issue proactively, otherwise their hand is likely to be forced in the near future.