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The artefacts that are not on display at the British Museum

Deaccessioning is a problematic topic for many museums – particularly those in the UK, where the law prohibits many of them from disposing of artefacts except in certain very specific circumstances. It is however, an issue that remains on the agenda – not least because whilst budgets of museums are cut, the size of their collections is ever increasing, yet much of it is never on public display. Institutions such as the British Museum hide behind the anti-deaccessioning clauses in their governing act of parliament, as a way of avoiding any sort of serious debate in many restitution cases. Surely though, there should be some more easy mechanism for downsizing vast collections, or loaning the items out on a more long term basis.

Many museums arguing that by keeping items in the public realm, they are serving an important educational purpose. It must be considered however, that if many of the items are not on display, the public is generally unaware of their existence (yet at the same time continues to pay for their storage & upkeep).

BBC News [1]

19 January 2011 Last updated at 06:30
London museums urged to show more ‘hidden’ artefacts

Museums in London are being urged to get more of their collections out of storage and on display as funding cuts will mean fewer landmark exhibitions.

Many museums in the capital keep more than 90% of their collections stored away.

The Museums Association says despite the current economic climate it wants to challenge venues to offer more to the public.

The government says national museums will face a funding cut of 15%.

A BBC Freedom of Information request found the British Museum had spent £86,280 in 2009 and 2010 keeping 99% of its collection in storage.

The Natural History Museum spent £45,928 on storage space for 95% of its specimen collections.

The Tate (Modern, Britain, St Ives and Liverpool) expects to spend £465,500 on storage by the end of the financial year and the National Maritime Museum spent £142,361 in 2010.

The Wallace Collection, under the terms of the bequest from Lady Wallace, cannot loan out or keep works stored off-site.
Unparalleled collection

The Imperial War Museum reduced its storage costs in 2010 from £8,731 to £3,351 and the National Gallery and the Science Museum (not including subsidiary museums outside London) do not hire any storage space for their collections but do have objects out of view.

Sally Cross, of the Museums Association, said the venues had some of the country’s most valuable collections and so it was important they “take great care” of them.

“Some of the material is quite vulnerable such as paper drawings, textiles and costumes. They can be damaged if on display for a long time.

“With budget cuts it’s harder to put on temporary exhibitions and they cost a lot so we’ll probably see fewer blockbuster exhibitions, but I hope museums can use their stored collections to fill those gaps and refresh what they offer to the audience.”
Vulnerable material

A statement from the British Museum said it “maintains a large collection of objects from across the globe from two million years ago to the present day”.

“The preservation of this unparalleled collection for current and future generations is a key purpose of the British Museum, we therefore make the safety and security of our storage facilities a paramount aim.”

Angela Doane, director of collections at the National Maritime Museum, said it spent £142, 361 on storing 93% of its 4,000 paintings and 70,000 prints and drawings because so much of it was fragile.

“They can’t be placed on permanent display but they are very good for temporary changing exhibitions and they are always available through museum archives and special appointments.”

She said the museum was soon to open a new library and archive facility which would triple the amount of material available to see.

Museums Association [2]

Cross calls for new debate on stored collections | Museums Association
Geraldine Kendall, 26.01.2011

MA collections coordinator comments on BBC report showing extent of storage costs for nationals

Sally Cross, the MA’s collections coordinator, has called for a new debate on how museums could use stored collections and storage space more creatively. Cross spoke out after a BBC report last week criticised the amount spent by national museums on storage.

The report found that some nationals were spending over £500,000 per year hiring storage space. The British Museum was shown to have spent £86,280 renting external storage space in 2010, while the Tate hired space worth £520,547. Both museums also devote extensive space within their properties to storage.

The British Museum defended the amount it spent on storage, saying: “A large proportion of the collection cannot be on display permanently for conservation reasons… It is vital that this collection is stored and studied but it is not necessary for the entire collection to be displayed.”

MA collections coordinator Sally Cross, who contributed to the report, said afterwards the BBC research had raised questions about how stored collections could be used more proactively and whether storage resources would be affected by upcoming budget cuts.

Cross said: “Obviously in a two-minute news piece the BBC couldn’t cover all the issues on stored collections. We all know that museums need storage space – the question I’d like to ask museums is how they can make best use of their collections in store and whether their storage areas are at risk from funding cuts.”

Cross said she would like to hear new suggestions on how museums could be more creative in using their stored objects and storage space in future.

Recent applicants to the MA’s Effective Collections grant scheme have embarked on community projects, sharing networks and ambitious disposal schemes to get more use out of their collections.

Torontoist [3]

January 13, 2011 9:00 AM
ROM Secrets Revealed

We got a sneak peek at the Royal Ontario Museum’s treasure trove of undisplayed artefacts this week, ahead of a big reveal on a new TV show, Museum Secrets. If you think the exterior of the infamous Crystal is hard on the eyes, try looking past all the jagged edges to what’s inside the museum—deep inside the museum. It helps.

Toronto-based production company Kensington Communications set out to explore the back rooms of world famous museums—including the Louvre, the Cairo Museum, and the ROM—in their new series for History Televison. When the show’s executive producer, Robert Lang, and his team went searching through the inner workings of the museums, he knew exactly what he was looking for: undisplayed artefacts, unexplored theories, and unknown stories about famous museum pieces. And he found lots of them.

Behind the glass cases filled with glass-eyed critters at the ROM, there’s a network of hallways alive with stories and their tellers. The corridors of the private sections of the museum—the areas hidden behind doors that need a magnetic pass card, just like the ones used to access most offices—wind around behind the public galleries. This private part of the museum has the same look and feel as Robarts Library: plain grey cement walls and painted metal doors. (It even “smells like school,” remarked our photographer.) The museum is, after all, a centre for research and discovery, and not just a collection of displays for the public. In fact, the ROM was controlled by the University of Toronto from its inception in 1912 until 1968, when it became an independent institution.

In the museum’s back-room offices and labs lurk the enigmatic curators who know the collections and their stories best, and who tell them with such flair that the relics almost relive their past glories. Watching Corey Keeble, a curator specializing in arms and armour, show off a fifteenth-century crossbow, wrestling the bow out of its dust case like the sturdy weapon it is and not some fragile antique, gives us a new perspective on the ancient items.

The opportunity to touch artefacts as if they aren’t on the verge of crumbling also gives curators a new perspective. Archaeological scientist Rob Mason showed off some eight-centuries-old things in the museum’s collection, explaining that researchers had no idea what the hand-sized, highly-fired ceramic stoneware pieces were used for. There were over a dozen theories, from water pipe to sports equipment to hand grenade, but it wasn’t until replicas were made for the show that the curators looked at the pieces in a new way. Any imperative to coddle them was removed, and so researchers used a natural grip to hold them and found themselves “gripping the heavy thing like a cricket ball.” This discovery, based in human instinct and not in studied fact, led them away from the water-pipe theory—but not without a trip to Kensington Market’s Hot Box Cafe to test it out—and towards the more probable theory the things were weapons.

The adventure almost makes us wish the museum’s curators could take time from their research to wander the public gallery sharing their knowledge and infectious enthusiasm. But the research must go on, and luckily—so does the show.

The ROM episode of Museum Secrets airs on History Television on January 20 and includes the tale of two mummies, the question of bomb or bong, and how the ROM realized, after almost fifty years, that it owned the second most complete sauropod specimen in the world: ninety-foot-long Gordo.