Is the Museum Fat? A Nutritional Analysis of Visible Storage
“Welcome to the Museums Discovery Centre. This is not a museum”
No, this isn’t Dadaist architecture. This is a guide’s welcoming line to visitors at the Museums Discovery Centre. The Centre is a state-of-the-art storage and preservation facility located in Sydney and houses over 500,000 objects from three of the state’s major cultural institutions.
The Museums Discovery Centre is a visible storage site.
Visible storage conjures up a lot of ideas; accessible hoarding, a display shed, a Museum IKEA. It can be a hard notion for museum staff to grasp, let alone the visitor.
So what is visible storage? Why is it so awesome and why should every museum in the world be trying to make their collection stores accessible to the public?
Much like the objects in a collection, visible storage is not new. If you continue researching you’ll discover that the concept been around since the 1970s and has a worldwide plethora of museum behemoths championing it, particularly in London and New York.
The guides at the Museums Discovery Centre explain to visitors that most museums only ever have about 5% of their collection on public display — the rest is stored in another part of the building or offsite with very restricted staff access and usually no public access. Some objects in a museum’s collection may never be on display to the public. A museum could have hundreds of vases but only a select few may ever be exhibited. At a visible collection storage site, you see all the vases. You also see all the teacups. And all the pianos.
So, visible storage is a lot of the exact same stuff stored together? In truth, yes, but there’s more to it. Objects are not displayed in an area to suit a narrative, but instead are stored based on the object’s conservation requirements. Storage rooms are colder than others to accommodate humidity sensitive objects whilst light sensitive objects are stored in drawers. At the Museums Discovery Centre visitors can see a totem-pole next to a bus as well as a rocket missile near a Swedish glass vase. It’s there because it’s the best place to store it.
The visitors start to understand it. But why is it so awesome? Visible storage is awesome because not only does it allow for visitors to each have a unique experience but also because visible storage is like the fat of a museum.
Most cultural institutions credit the collection as being the ‘heart’ of their museum. They are right. Nothing is more integral to a museum than the collection. However, a heart cannot beat on it’s own without a system to support it. Perhaps we need to look at the museum from a different angle. A nutritional angle. An angle in which we are what we eat. We are what we exhibit.
So if visible storage is the fat of a museum, what makes up the rest of the museum? A nutritional or cultural analysis could comprise of the following:
The Collection. It’s needed in the long run in any diet, but some times it can be a little dry and needs boosting through engagement strategies. Carbohydrates keep us going and without the collection a museum breaks down. Don’t deprive or limit your collection intake.
Programs are the protein of a museum. You can program without a collection, but a protein without carbohydrates can be a little bland and so when programs and collections mix well it can be a very fulfilling experience for the museum visitor. Protein provides strength and programs can strengthen a museum experience. However, a human body can only accept so much protein and then it naturally dispels the rest. This is similar to a museum audience and the programs on offer — visitors can only attend so many events/exhibitions/openings before they ignore the excess newsletters.
Fat is defined as the excess storage we keep to fuel our bodies. Too much fat and we need to either shed a few pounds or get a new wardrobe. When a museum’s collection becomes too big, it needs to either deacquisition parts of the collection or find offsite storage.
Most museums tend to keep their storage (fat) hidden from the public, almost as if they were ashamed. But museums, like human bodies need fat. In times of dire need, the human body will rely on stored fat for survival. When our museums run out of exhibitions they turn to the storage collection. For this reason, we should be proud of our storage and proud of our fat and we should be proud to make it more visible and display it.
And like fat, visible storage leaves a tasteful experience for the visitors.
When visitors understand how unique the Museums Discovery Centre is they really begin to enjoy the experience. On a tour of the store rooms visitors are invited to share their own stories about the objects on display. No tour is ever quite the same as visitors are understandably drawn to different objects for different reasons. For many visitors walking through the store rooms is similar to discovering long lost treasures in an attic. The enticement spreads from room to room.
‘I owned three of those cookers!’ cries a visitor in one of the rooms. The guide doesn’t need to provide any facts about the cooker. The visitor begins to recall the mechanisms of each cooker as well as the dish it always burnt. Many experiences in the rooms are like this.
Museums collect objects of cultural significance and whilst we museum professionals curate exhibitions and select objects, some objects hidden in the depths of a collection may be of more personal significance to the visitor.
Visible storage gives museum visitors the opportunity to see everything in a museums’ collection and to curate their own connection to the collection.
Exhibiting one or two tea cups may not mean a lot to a visitor but chances are, if you allow visitors to view all 3000 tea cups, they’ll find more than one significance.
Food for thought.