National Museums NI under attack for poor storage

The comptroller and auditor general for Northern Ireland, John Dowdall, has criticised shortcomings in the standard of documentation and storage of the collection of National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI).
Don Anderson
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His report found that at the time the organisation was unable to provide details of the percentage of artefacts documented to recognised national and international standards; about 60 per cent of its total storage area was considered to be either poor or unacceptable and less than 10 per cent of the collection at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum was computerised.

Tim Cooke, the chief executive of the national museums, said that overall, 90 per cent of the collection was held in suitable conditions and that the other 10 per cent was generally material of lesser significance that did not need sophisticated environmental control. The report was referring to the number of stores, thought to be about 50, some of which are very small.

'While accepting that there are improvements we can make, it is reassuring that the report comes to the clear conclusion that the bulk of the collections held in storage are assessed as good or excellent. This includes the more valuable items, such as the art collection,' said Cooke.

Like many museums, only about 10 per cent of the collection is on display at any given time, so the quality of storage for the rest of the collection is important. The organisation is under increasing storage pressure because it is having to shut down the Ulster Museum in Belfast this autumn for a £12m rebuild. The main museum will be closed for two years.

Cooke said that it was the NMNI's aim to rationalise and develop the storage and documentation programmes. 'We are currently exploring the possibility of developing a new collections resource centre, including modern stores. We have appointed Jim McGreevy as our new director of collections and interpretation to coordinate the organisation's future approach to collection management issues.'

The report recommended that the Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure should set appropriate performance indicators, similar to those established for English museums by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in London, and the results should be reported annually.

The report will be the subject of a hearing by the Public Accounts Committee and it is thought that Cooke will use the occasion to make a strong case for further investment.

The national museums is responsible for approximately 1.5 million artefacts at its four museums.

Don Anderson

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