Visible Storage

Offering visitors a view of what has typically been “behind the scenes” in museums can be a great way to pique interest in preservation and conservation. More importantly, encouraging public understanding about a museum’s responsibility to care for its collections in perpetuity can lead to more widespread support of preservation. Visible storage and visible collections work areas are ways some museums have brought the “behind the scenes” into the forefront.

Visible storage can be an effective strategy to meet a museum’s dual collection imperatives—preservation and access. Several museums with large visible storage galleries report that these spaces increase visitors’ understanding of the size and scope of an institution’s collection. There are a few extra challenges, however, involved with visible storage.

  • Visible storage is necessarily less artifact-dense than reserve (i.e. back-room) storage; one study found that visible storage has, at best, 2/3 the capacity of reserve storage to house artifacts.
  • Artifacts in visible storage are exposed to more light than in traditional reserve storage. Textiles and paper, therefore, normally should be excluded from visible storage schemes.
  • The quantity of objects on view in visible storage can be overwhelming to some visitors. Arranging objects according to one big idea can help.

    photo by Baylus C. Brooks

Installation of the casework necessary for visible storage can also be tremendously expensive for museums. A more budget-friendly option is to install a window through which visitors can glimpse the reserve collection and even view collections staff at work. The storage room at the recently built Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum (GOAM) in Hatteras follows this design objective, and a glass wall separates collections storage and work space from the main exhibition gallery. Museum visitors can see mobile shelving units on one side of the space and work tables on the other. Staff can arrange part of the collection on the outermost set of shelves for visible storage. Those in the exhibit gallery on the day of researcher Dawn Taylor’s visit to collections storage would have viewed this scene through the glass wall, as GOAM staffer Clara Scarborough showed Taylor artifacts on the mobile storage shelving units. 

This visibility of storage and collections activities can be exciting for the public. One visitor from Chapel Hill posted a review of the GOAM in January 2011 on Trip Advisor. “Don’t miss looking through the glass windows at their collection storage. When I was there they had curators working on the collection, who explained what they were working on. It was my favorite part of our two week trip.”

What access do visitors to your institution have to collections storage? Is any part of storage visible to the casual exhibit-goer?

For more information on visible storage, see John D. Hilberry, “Behind the Scenes: Strategies for Visible Storage” (Museum News, July/ August 2002) and Dee A. Stubbs-Lee, “Inside Out: A Conservator’s Investigation of Museums, Visible Storage, and the Interpretation of Conservation” (Collections: A Journal for Museums and Archives Professionals, Fall 2009).

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About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on May 18, 2012, in collections access, collections care, collections management, Exhibitions, museums, storage and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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