In Focus | Opening up stored collections - Museums Association

In Focus | Opening up stored collections

Holly Black looks at how new storage facilities are prioritising visitor participation
Internal render view of the central collection hall in V&A East Storehouse designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro Diller Scofidio + Renfro, 2021

Collections storage is a perennial concern for museums across the UK. Insufficient space, incomplete cataloguing and issues with environmental controls, as well as physical access to sites that are often miles away from city centres, create barriers to research and conservation.

With as little as 1% of museum collections on display, communicating the significance of holdings and unseen expertise to the public can be challenging at a time when the value of culture is under increasing scrutiny.

Several organisations are hoping to change this by creating storage solutions that place visitor participation and access front and centre.
For the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), Science Museum Group and British Museum, the need to develop new facilities was the result
of a government decision in 2015 to sell Blythe House – the three museums stored millions of objects at the sprawling building in west London.

However, such a challenge did provide the opportunity for innovation. When V&A East opens in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park next year, it will feature a facility known as The Storehouse. According to Tim Reeve, the V&A’s deputy director and chief operating officer, this was a chance for the museum to completely reconceive what a collections facility could be.

“It’s not visible storage, it’s not accessible storage; it’s a new type of museum experience where front and back of house merge in to one,” he says. “It will be open to everyone.”

The site will feature an enormous central Collection Hall, where visitors will be surrounded by visible racking systems, quarantine facilities and specialist conservation spaces, as well as creative studios and “common rooms” for public use. The Storehouse – which will be home to 250,000 objects, nearly 1,000 archives and 350,000 books – will give visitors unprecedented insight into the inner workings of a museum, where everyone from PhD candidates to school children and amateur enthusiasts will be welcomed. A trip around the site is expected to take between 60 and 90 minutes.


“It is foremost a working site, where self-guided visitors can get a sense of what we do,” says Reeve. “It will be constantly changing and evolving.”

Documenting collections

The Science Museum Group has also used the challenge of moving
swathes of the collection to fully catalogue and reorganise holdings, to future proof records and storage.

The group will soon open Building One at Wiltshire’s National Collections Centre.

“The move is an opportunity and a catalyst to do more with our collection,” says Jessica Bradford, head of collections and principal curator at the Science Museum. “It’s not just packing up and moving on.”

As part of the process, objects can be condition checked and photographed, offering opportunities for a richer digital database that can be made available to the public.


“We could never embark on a photography project of this scale on its own because it is expensive, risky and time consuming – but as one component of the move, it was feasible,” says Bradford. “By allowing people to see what we have, we will hopefully get more loan and research requests.”

For Alex Fullerlove, head of collections management at the Science Museum Group, moving 280,000 objects has meant creating rigorous guidelines and processes to promote best practice.

This included barcoding objects and shelving. The mixed materials that form most of the collection demand ample accessible space and a variety of environmental conditions.

“Most of the collection is in one big hall which, in terms of temperature stability, access, retrieval and, let’s be honest, spectacle, is stunning,” says Fullerlove.

Such a spectacle will be made available to a viewing public on an appointment and tours-led basis.

“We are still refining the model,” says Bradford. “But we will probably be open for tours about 30 days a year, with themed visits around specific collections and aimed at specific audiences.”


Visitor service

An important consideration when making valuable museum work visible to
the public is the pressure it could put on staff not used to public-facing roles.

At Building One, this means introducing a team of collections access facilitators. According to Bradford, they will “provide a link between curatorial knowledge and research with the public, in a manner that has not been possible before”.

As the National Collections Centre is not in a central location, people will be encouraged to visit the site via car sharing and shuttle services.

Environmental initiatives such as planting woodland and wildflower meadows will ensure Building One is something of a day out, where visitors can enjoy the collection and experience the countryside.

Improving access isn’t just about providing tours and visitor experiences – for the Natural History Museum, which in April announced £20m in additional funding to move 28 million specimens to Thames Valley Science Park in Reading, its new storage facility will enable scientists to use its collections and research to help tackle the planetary emergency, including maintaining food security, improving biodiversity and addressing climate change.

Unorthodox sites

Purpose-built storage facilities are a favourable option for many museums, but more unorthodox sites have also proved a success. Earlier this year, plans were submitted to convert a former Ikea building in Coventry into a major collections research and storage facility for Arts Council England and the British Council.

Elsewhere, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge is in the middle of a five-year project to move more than 250,000 objects from off-site stores to the new Centre for Material Culture – housed in a nuclear bunker in the city.

In Scotland, Paisley Museum took over a former supermarket just a short
walk along the town’s high street, to build a basement collections store known as the Secret Collection.

“A made-to-measure off-site store is what everyone dreams about,” says Susan Jeffrey, Paisley’s research and collections coordinator. “But we got something even better, because we occupied an empty commercial unit, which was fantastic in terms of environmental monitoring and access.”

The site features a large loading bay and public visibility in the form of a slender on-street entrance. Bespoke storage solutions include wireframe racking ideal for increased lines of sight, and climate-controlled spaces for delicate objects.

Community engagement

Being surrounded by the very community the collection is designed to serve certainly has its advantages. The Prince Philip Maritime Collections Centre in Kidbrooke, London, houses Royal Museums Greenwich’s stored collections and conservation studios.

Jenny Crothall, the service’s collection storage and access manager, says the facility sparked local interest straight away, and a robust programme of themed public tours, as well as special outreach among neighbours and local schools, have proved popular.

“Moving to the site allowed us to unite collections, and we can work across departments and communicate better,” she says. “It also means visitors can be inspired by all of the incredible objects we have, and the work that we do.”

Beyond straight-up storage tours, there are object-based focuses and children’s workshops including a computer coding club, offering a new understanding when it comes to the processes and research involved in caring for these objects.

Khursheed Hussain, Royal Museums Greenwich’s learning collection coordinator, says: “We try to use the stored collections in every way we can to give access to the public. These objects belong to us all.”

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