We must all help solve the storage crisis

Tackling the challenges associated with storing collections
Gail Boyle
While the results of the Society for Museum Archaeology’s (SMA) recent survey regarding space, staff and time were not a complete surprise to some, we can now at least benchmark several issues and map the direction of travel.

The headlines it prompted focused largely on the crisis that we face in terms of museum storage. Some of the results certainly make stark reading and commonly reiterated solutions have been offered, from “collect less” (we already do), to “do it in partnership” (some already are) or “stop collecting altogether” (some already have).

Archaeology is unlikely to be the root cause of all museum storage issues, and is therefore not alone in the need to find solutions. From a purely archaeological perspective, however, the answer may lie in the oft-wished for but unlikely joined- up legislation regarding statutory access to and the associated preservation of archives.

Realistically speaking, a more immediate solution to funding new storage (at least in part) would be to adopt a commercial attitude to its service delivery, as part of the developer-funded process.

But why this fixation on storage and storage alone? Assuming we all believe that museums collect for the benefit of society, perhaps we need to ask why we should bother to collect anything at all, if we aren’t able to use it to its best advantage.

in the number of commercial archaeologists is not being matched in museums; 29.2% of respondents reported a fall in staff since 2010. The impact of this is compounded by staff being given extra collection responsibilities or wider service delivery.

It is more than likely that this trend is being mirrored within other subject specialisms. If we allow expertise and staff resource to dwindle, we risk collection neglect, and it’s entirely possible that the ability of collections to inspire future generations will become as redundant as the staff who have the skills to unlock their potential. It won’t matter where or how they are stored.

The challenge of retaining, protecting and sharing specialist collection knowledge and skills was recognised in the Character Matters: Attitudes, Behaviours and Skills in the UK Museum Workforce report, published last year.

Its authors make important recommendations in relation to Subject Specialist Networks and the vital role that they have to play in this, and their need for extra funding and increased capacity.

From a sector-wide perspective, we need to ensure that our national leadership bodies follow through on the delivery of such recommendations: museums need to be able to retain such expertise and the associated skill sets required to solve sector-wide problems such as storage. The biggest question of all is are there enough of us left in the system to take up the challenge? I hope so.

Gail Boyle is the senior curator (archaeology) at Bristol Culture and the chair of the Society for Museum Archaeology

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