Green watch: April 2009

Maurice Davies, Issue 109/04, p9, April 2009
Storing up trouble?
How sustainable is a large stored collection? Museums are keeping millions of items from the past to benefit future generations. That sounds sustainable.

But as Manchester Museum director Nick Merriman reminded an audience at the Centre for Sustainable Heritage at University College London, a large collection can sometimes be more of a burden than a benefit.

The energy required to care for stored collections worries Green watch most. If collections were well enough used, that might be justified, but Merriman cited the Collections for the Future report, which concluded:

"Too many collections are underused - not displayed, published or used for research." As one respondent to the Museum Association's sustainability consultation put it: "It's pointless showcasing history to the world if it costs the earth."

There's a story, possibly apocryphal, of a rare-book collector who never allows his collection to feature more than 100 items. Every time he wants a new book, he disposes of one first.

That could be a way of capping the energy used by museum stores. After Merriman's lecture, I heard a tale of a museum director who plans to introduce a similar "one in, one out" policy.

But the curators responded by accessioning things they didn't want, so they could be "sacrificed" for future acquisitions. This left the stored collection untouched - and failed to bring the intended green benefits.

Maurice Davies is deputy director of the Museums Association