The 1990 French documentary La Ville Louvre is remembered as one of the first times the public was given a glimpse of the hive of activity that goes on behind the scenes in a museum. One particular shot endures: the camera follows a curator as she wanders through the labyrinthine underground passages of the Louvre, the walls stacked with half-seen artefacts. The scene encapsulates the fascination that museum stores hold for the public – their tantalising promise of secrets and hidden treasures.
The day-to-day reality is usually a little more mundane, but anyone who works with collections can tell of a moment of magic that happened in their storeroom – the tingle that ran down their spine as they came across some long-forgotten specimen or uncovered a link between objects that no one else had spotted.
The question of how to bring that sense of enchantment and discovery to audiences is one that museums have been exploring in recent years – and the answers are constantly evolving. The Museums Association’s 2019 Empowering Collections report found that, despite their potential, many museum collections are in “a state of stasis or even decay”, and called for new thinking in storage – such as shared storage spaces – to ensure collections are “empowering, dynamic and relevant”.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how quickly the relationship between museums and audiences can change, and will undoubtedly bring about new ways of working with stored collections.
In the past decade, there has been a move towards a more open, visitor-centric approach to storage. A number of major developments are on the horizon that will transform how people engage with collections (see our features on The Depot and Blythe House).
But it has often been smaller, civic museums that have led the way in innovation. A prime example of this is Paisley: The Secret Collection, a groundbreaking storage facility that Renfrewshire Leisure opened in 2017.
“Pretty much every large museum in Scotland has visited us to see how we achieved it,” says Christine McLean, the heritage manager at Renfrewshire Leisure, which runs Paisley and Renfrew museums. The Secret Collection, the first publicly accessible museum store on a UK high street, was conceived as a space in which to decant Paisley Museum’s collections while maintaining public access to them during the £42m Paisley Reimagined redevelopment, which is due for completion in 2022.
Lack of storage space is a perennial problem for museums, and the Secret Collection built in a percentage of space for future acquisitions. Pre-Covid, the facility ran three tours a week and regular school workshops in its learning room.
It took time for the public to get used to the idea of a high street museum store, says McLean. “Even though we’re right on the high street, a lot of people either didn’t know we were there or thought we were taking the place of the museum.”
But four years in, the benefits are clear. On a practical level, having such an accessible store has enabled a far larger number of people to come into contact with the collections, says McLean. Viewing objects in their raw state rather than on display also means people engage with them in a different way, creating a more intimate, less intimidating space for those who don’t speak English as a first language or who don’t usually visit museums.
“In many ways it’s more accessible,” says McLean. “The most obvious benefit is that it gets people talking to each other and sharing a lot of their own knowledge. We’ve been working with source communities, but even at local level we’ve had a lot of people saying, ‘I had that in my house’. It’s broken down those roles about it being the museum telling you about the object.”
Open storage complements the sector’s wider shift towards participatory curatorial practice. When it reopens, Paisley Museum aims to put a significant emphasis on co-curation, with at least 10% of its permanent displays developed in partnership with communities; the Secret Collection will play a key role in facilitating this.
The institution recently worked with a group from the town’s 200-strong community of Syrian refugees to prepare its collection of 2,000-year-old handblown Syrian glass for display, inviting a glass-blower into the Secret Collection’s learning space to demonstrate traditional techniques. Working in this way means that the museum will be able to keep its displays fresh and dynamic.
“We’re planning a flexible display system to ensure we can get as much of the collection out as possible,” says McLean. “Our permanent displays are not going to be ‘permanent’. We want to give people a reason to return because there’ll be something new.”
Having the right kind of storage facility can bring with it a range of possibilities for what museums can do with their collections. National Museums Scotland (NMS) opened a state-of-the-art collections centre in 2015 to serve as a depot for its four sites, which previously stored their collections at six separate commercial facilities. The consolidation process led to some incredible discoveries, such as a set of 3,000-year-old Egyptian horse-hair shrouds.
“When you consolidate your collections, it allows you to understand what you have,” says Chanté St Clair Inglis, head of collections services at NMS. “You can develop really good collections strategies with focused acquisitions.”
The institution has also reaped the benefits of having laboratories, studios and science facilities all in one place. “It lets us think about not just how we care for collections but also how we use them,” she says. “It means we can prepare the collections really efficiently for display.”
This has been particularly helpful while NMS’s museums have been closed to the public during the pandemic. To boost the digitisation of objects, the centre has photography rooms next to its storage spaces. During Covid these have been used for virtual training sessions, conferences and demonstrations. Post-pandemic, NMS plans to continue with a mixed model of online and offline training, making its courses more accessible to museum professionals.
Having everything stored in one place brings environmental benefits too. As the climate crisis intensifies, there are pressing questions about sustainability in museum stores, which consume a great deal of energy and generate significant waste. With all the collections stored together in a stable environment, NMS is able to focus its energy use more efficiently on the items that need the most protection.
It lets us think about not just how we care for collections but also how we use them.
“We are seeking to achieve a baseline standard in our buildings that protects the vast majority of the collections. It means we only go bespoke where we need to,” says St Clair Inglis.
Some institutions have taken this a step further: the Imperial War Museum’s new archive in Cambridgeshire, IWM Paper Store, has been designed to the international “passivhaus” standard, an architectural design process that aims to create buildings that use almost no energy for heating or cooling. The facility, which opened in 2019, has been billed as the “most airtight building in the world”.
But there are simpler steps that museum stores can take to reduce their ecological footprint, says Shona Elliott, the lead curator (collections access) at Aberdeen Archives, Gallery and Museum, which opened its purpose-built storage facility, Aberdeen Treasure Hub, in 2016. The hub has taken some straightforward measures to cut down on the waste it generates, she says.
It donates plastic waste and offcuts to local scrap stores, which supply schools and community groups with craft materials, and uses museum networks such as Museums Galleries Scotland’s geographic forum to pass on unwanted items for other institutions to reuse. It uses LED lights, acid-free paper and recyclable plastic gloves, and returns foam offcuts to suppliers. “We also find foam offcuts brilliant for stabilising jewellery and coins,” Elliott says.
For Elliott, museum stores are on the brink of an exciting era. “We know from television shows like Secrets of the Museum that there’s an interest in seeing how things are done,” she says.
Before Covid, the hub had tapped into this appetite – and a potentially rich income stream – by running corporate away days, where company staff could sign up for collections-related tasks such as writing labels. Going forward, it is also considering paid-for themed tours aimed at special-interest groups.
The sudden move to digital engagement as a result of the pandemic has been “really effective at drumming up interest” in the hub, Elliott says. The venue regularly posts short videos and interviews on social media giving insights into the store. Staff have diversified their digital skills, using tools such as Microsoft Stream to create descriptions of objects for people with visual impairments.
“The pandemic has shown that you don’t need to be in the store or gallery to increase access,” Elliott says. “Digital shouldn’t be a poor man’s version of real life, you have to exploit it for what it does.
“There’s still only a small number of museum stores open to the public. I would love to see more open up and be accessible, not hidden away. It’s an exciting time when stores can come into the limelight.”