Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

ArtsHub’s Gina Fairley on visible storage

Ungjin-dong, Gongju-si, Chungcheongnam-do, South Korea, 2022: ceramic bottle relics on the storage shelf with glass window at Gongju National Museum. Image: Shutterstock.

Gina Fairley, New trends in visible storage in museums, ArtsHub, 23 May 2023

What exactly is ‘visible storage’ in today’s museum environment of greater accessibility, and how is it changing how museums are being designed and refitted?

It could be said that museums started as Wunderkammer, or ‘cabinets of curiosities’ – room-sized displays that emerged in the 16th century. They were defined by their clustered, eclectic collections of objets d’art and artefacts, largely amassed during merchant and aristocratic expeditions.

Deeply colonialist – agreed.

Museums have been trying to counter their elitist origins ever since. In a twist, it is the very cabinet model of the wunderkammer that is finding a resurgence today as a tool to democratise our collections.

Visible storage (also known as open storage) is proving a good solution to ever-increasing cries for deeper accountability, especially as, on average, 95% of most collections are held in the bowels of museums and are rarely seen by the public.

Visible storage is the function by which a museum allows public access to their collection holdings via internal windows, glass cases and research portals, with minimal information provided and no invigilation requirements.

It is not a new idea. Some of the earliest adopters were the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (Canada) in the 1970s, New York’s iconic Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1980s, and London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in the 1990s. Today, it is de rigueur – its 21st century renaissance having a rethink in sync with the global building boom in cultural infrastructure of recent years.

Types of visible storage in our times:

  • An architectural intervention, such as a window, offering a behind-the-scenes peep at artworks on racks – some selectively pulled out to show key artworks, but no information supplied. This is increasingly part of new builds, but also an economical way in building refits to increase public access percentages – without the issues of invigilation.
  • A glass vitrine housing objects that is embedded into the museum, as a wall divider or as a research space, with the opportunity to make an appointment.
  • Reclaiming in-museum storage spaces to become visible storage areas – increasing the percentage of a collection shown with minimal curatorial impact – and sending the bulk of a collection off-site.
  • These new off-site collection storage facilities are also being used as places of research and public access.

Accountability driving visible storage

Architect Troy Uleman, of renowned global design studio John McAslan + Partners, has recently been working with the British Museum on a major storage facility – separate to the museum – that illustrates this approach.

‘It’s something that we’ve been helping museums realise for quite a while now,’ Uleman tells ArtsHub, adding that while this project is a research centre, it has been designed with collection access in mind.

Uleman also recently worked on the Burrell Collection outside of Glasgow (Scotland), to repurpose an older building to include visible storage. ‘We’ve taken a lot of the space that was formerly storage and given that over to exhibition space – and that is largely a glazing thing.’

Uleman is of the view that existing gallery architecture can be adapted thoughtfully to allow for visible storage. He says that there are opportunities to ‘represent those kinds of spaces back to the people in new ways that are intriguing and engaging, and get people back to the museum’.

He adds that current trends in museum design also call for greater flexibility and sustainability. ‘I think where museums are, at the moment, is in the adapting of what they have. I think there’s a lot of building fabric there that can just be better utilised, particularly from a sustainability perspective.

‘It was very important to us, working on the Burrell, that we looked at this through a restoration means rather than a “let’s change everything” model. So we did quite a lot within the existing building fabric,’ Uleman explains.

He says there is a current trend, in new builds globally, around trying to find ways to get people more access to that back-of-house process, ‘because I think people see it as an opportunity to get people who may be interested in that to come to the gallery’.

Smarter buildings equal smarter audiences

‘There’s an interest to see behind the scenes … those secret parts of museums that people don’t generally get to see,’ says Uleman. ‘So by putting the storage on display, by making the conservation areas visible, it offers a transparency and gives people access to the process.’

In recent Australian building projects we have seen an almost mandatory inclusion of visible storage. Take, for example, Bundanoon and Home of the Arts on the Gold Coast (Hota), both of which have windows that make visible their collection store, architecturally designed into their galleries. While SECCA – Bega’s new regional gallery that opens this month – has also prioritised visible collection storage into its design.

The Chau Chak Wing Museum and Hota, meanwhile, have turned to the use of glass vitrines to expand collection access. Hota repurposed a neutral wall between the gallery and the restaurant to display collection objects, otherwise lost in storage, while Chau Chak Wing uses the intermediary spaces transitioning between exhibition galleries.

Similarly, the Powerhouse Museum has used the Wunderkammer vernacular to display larger quantities of objects in the gallery, but also is bringing new thinking around collection access to the building of Powerhouse Parramatta, and refit of Powerhouse at Castle Hill.

The rationale for the new Powerhouse Parramatta states that the museum will explore “a radical departure” from this model of visible collections, and rather take a “transparent collections” approach – meaning open access display for collections, conservation areas and audience engagement will be embedded throughout the building. It is more aligned with research storage Uleman has just worked on for the British Museum (opening 2023).

Powerhouse cites the latest addition to New York’s historic American Museum of Natural History, the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and lnnovation – otherwise known as the Collections Core (which opened 4 May 2023) – as its guiding inspiration, as well as the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Lunder Conservation Center, where visitors can see conservators at work through floor-to-ceiling glass walls.

It is a box tick on access that author Nicky Reeves agrees with in her chapter ‘Visible storage, visible labour?‘ in the book Museum Storage and Meaning (Routledge, 2017), but she also feels it is problematic.

She writes, ‘[While] one motivation for visible storage is that institutions feel the need to justify the existence and expense of maintaining large, mostly unseen, collections. Hence the turn towards visible storage is one attempt among a variety of strategies to be anti-elitist, demystifying and public-facing.’

Reeves adds that often, ‘by gesturing, visually, to the enormity of their collections, museums reaffirm their aura and privileged authority: look at how much stuff we have!’

So it is tricky getting it right.

Valourising objects or labour via visible collections

‘Is it the collection that is made visible, on guided or self-guided storeroom tours, or glimpsed through carefully positioned glass walls and windows, or is it just as much the logistics and architecture of storage, movable racks, trolleys and ladders that is made visible?’ questions Reeve, playing provocateur in asking whether the current trend is just valourising curatorial practice.

Reeves continues that ‘…objects in collections reattain legitimacy and value because they can be moved around and, somewhat weirdly, beautifully crafted shelves, crates and packaging materials become a newly visible type of fetishised museum object.’

Steven Miller, Director of the Morris Museum in New Jersey (US) writes in the paper, Museum Ethics Q & A: Open Storage (2009): ‘I find it amusing because when all is said and done, it is simply a return to the old 19th century museum concept of showing everything, or as much as possible. Cases and containers and lighting have changed in style, design and scope, but the presentation remains full and expansive with minimal labelling.’

He does, however, add, ‘In my opinion, open storage is a valid way to use museum collections.’

In a nutshell, visible storage is not only here to stay, but is on the rise. How we manage it – design for it – has become more complex. The difference is perhaps we are planning for it from the get-go, rather than using the Band-Aid response to greater accessibility in the past.

Where I find this really exciting, is that it is no longer the exclusive domain of natural history museums or the great galleries of the world. It is a model that is being picked up by many regional and small to medium galleries through less expensive refurbishing projects, which allows for greater engagement to publicly funded artworks.

And the big winner – all visitors.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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