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6 tips for increasing access to museum storage

Museums have a huge amount of objects behind the scenes in their stores. They are getting better at opening up collections stores as the sector comes to realise that improving access is necessary if we are to make the most of our “hidden” objects and attract new audiences. It is also useful to show the public just how many things museums have to look after and how expensive it can be to store everything.

This resource focuses on what’s working for places like Leeds Discovery Centre, Jersey Heritage and other collections stores around the UK and pulls out some useful example and tips. You will find this helpful if you are considering different ways to open up your own museum stores.

The Culture White Paper, from  the Department of Culture Media and Sports (DCMS), noted that the “decision to vacate Blythe House, a storage site in London… reflects our ambition to enhance public access to our national collections” by moving them to more accessible locations. As part of this move, the British Museum, through a £10m Heritage Lottery Fund grant, has brought more of its stored collections together within their new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre. This will mean better access to the collections for visitors to the centre but also greater opportunity for objects to leave the museum and be seen by more people in more places. A forthcoming new skills programme helping regional museums to get loan ready should also increase visits to the stores and borrowing from the collections.

With Ed Vaizey, former Minister of State at the DCMS, confessing “I am obsessed by museum storage” in a parliamentary debate into regional arts funding last year, only time will tell if his vision for nationwide “centres of excellence” within museum storage centres like the British Museum’s will become reality. If, however, you don’t have the millions needed to create a centre of excellence in which to relocate your museum store, or a hotline to the Culture Minister, there are some useful lessons you can learn from what others are doing.

Back in 2012, the Collections Trust worked with the Independent newspaper on Hidden Treasures, a campaign to open up the stored collections of 50 UK museums and galleries and give access to some of the amazing objects and spaces that are usually unseen. We recently followed up with some of the Hidden Treasures participants to see what they are doing with their collections storage now and what they have learnt so far.

6 tips for increasing access to museum storage

1. Be creative

Leeds Discovery Centre, has been developing a pilot programme of art classes held at the weekend using museum objects for still life drawing. Gemma Pollard, Site Development Officer explained, “There is a huge range of objects from toys to taxidermy so attendees get to see a varied selection of objects and collection items are being put to use on a more frequent basis.”

Jersey Heritage are also being creative with the use of their stores allowing photography groups to use the space for workshops. Val Nelson, Registrar, explained “workshop participants aren’t allowed to move items in the stores themselves but can ask for things to be moved so they can photograph them.”

2. Be resourceful

When we were talking to museums some useful resources were highlighted. If your storage space is bursting at the seams and public access is impossible, it may be time to consider a review of your collections so you can rationalise what you have. Take a look at the Guide to Selecting a Review Methodology for Collections Rationalisation as a great starting point.

If you need more storage equipment to help get things organised, Museum Freecycle may be able to help. Why not put up a wanted add or see what other museums are trying to re-home.

3. Be (virtually) realistic

So you really can’t let people into your stores? How about doing it virtually. This amazing series of films from Historic Royal Palaces takes you behind the scenes to learn more about particular items in the collection. A simple and cost effective way to do this would be by using Periscope video streaming platform. Mar Dixon has some useful tips for using Periscope in her blog.

4. Your place or mine?

The Leeds Discovery Centre knew that there were a large amount of weekend activities aimed at families that take place at other museum venues in more accessible locations around the city. By concentrating on activities for adults they targeted a different audience to avoid clashing with the ‘competition’.

The National Media Museum have also found that a targeted approach to attracting your audience brings great results. Lewis Pollard, Collections Assistant, told us: “Our Learning department run family-focused weekend Learning Tours of Insight, in the collections storage facility. These tours are advertised more widely than the weekday curatorial tours and the consistently high attendance numbers ensures great word of mouth advertising from happy families.”

He suggests you use your social media channels and encourage members of the public to spread the word. Link up with other organisations for some reciprocal advertising and reach more people. Local Adult Education centres and Children’s Centres may be happy to help you reach their visitors who are keen to try something new.

See the Audience Development Agency for more resources.

5. It’s not a popularity contest…

…But it could be! At Jersey Heritage, tours of the storage centre led to identification of objects and encouraged staff to bring particularly popular objects out of storage for display. The National Media Museum, has been running both targeted and flexible events. At the flexible events visitors get to define activity based on their interests. “Keeping tours informal allows visitors to ask questions and contribute knowledge and anecdotes. This ensures no two tours are ever the same.” explained Lewis Pollard, Collections Assistant.

You could plan a Revisiting Collections session in your store to find out what matters to your local community and ensure your collection is relevant.

6. Tell everyone. No, really.

A great final tip from Val Nelson about letting people know what you are doing… make sure you tell your security when you are planning to switch off the alarm system for a visit to the store or you may find the local police turning up for a look around too!

By now you’ll have an outline of the resourceful, creative and collaborative way in which museums are working to improve access to their stores.

Date created: 2016