Visible Storage As a Way of Making Collections Care Work More Visible
In 2011, a visit to the Cincinnati Art Museum and their open storage exhibit “The Collections: 6,000 Years of Art” sparked my interest in what goes on behind the scenes in museums. As a high schooler, I had visited and enjoyed many museums, but had never given much thought to how much of a museum’s collection is invisible to the public and what kind of work goes into caring for those objects. This exhibit, a creative solution to limited storage as a result of a major renovation, brought light to several thousand objects in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s collection. But it also expanded how the public regards and understands collections care work.
A view of "The Collections: 6,000 Years of Art," an open storage exhibit at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Image source.
Paintings on view in "The Collections" at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Image source.
I was reminded of this museum experience, and my interest in museum work as a result, while reading Latham’s (2007) article on the invisibility of collections care work (preservation, conservation, collections management, registration) in the Museum Collections course this past spring. After discussing the interest that visitors have in “behind the scenes” areas of the museum and their lack of understanding about what the care of a collection entails, Latham asks, “If they want to know more about collections care, why do we not make it part of the unique museum experience?” (p. 108). Among other suggestions, Latham points out the potential for increased visibility of collections care work as a result of museum workers communicating what they do and its importance to the functioning of the museum and the preservation of heritage. Can open storage help collections care workers communicate what they do and why it is important? Making the storage and conservation efforts of museums not usually seen by the public more visible can help make collections care work and the work done by museums in general more visible.
An open storage exhibit featuring part of the Kenneth Berger Hearing Aid Museum and Archive at the MuseLab.
Open, or visible, storage can be permanent or temporary storage arrangements that provide necessary protection or support for objects while making them more accessible by the public. For example the Cincinnati Art Museum’s open storage exhibit was a temporary exhibit that helped alleviate a lack of storage during renovations. Recently, the MuseLab featured visible storage of the Kent State Speech Pathology and Audiology program’s Kenneth Berger Hearing Aid Museum & Archives in the wall gallery. More permanent visible storage solutions can be seen in Luce Foundation Centers in major museums like the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the New York Historical Society, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Similarly to the Luce Centers at these other organizations, the Met’s Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art supports the foundation’s focus on American art while giving visibility to this high-profile collection. I have visited these visible storage centers at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and each of these experiences exposed the breadth of the collection and expanded my understanding of museum activities and responsibilities. The Broad Art Foundation in L.A. takes permanent visible storage to another level by embedding the idea of the “veil” and the “vault” in the architecture of its building (Domus, 2015). The building is said to guide visitors’ experiences by leading them through the “vault” after they complete their journey through the galleries under the “veil” of the outer building via glass staircases and hallways that allow them to observe not only the objects in storage but also the actual activities happening in these areas which are usually not open to the public. What better way to make collections care activities part of the museum experience, as Latham suggests?
The Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source.
The glass escalator and elevator at the Broad Art Foundation offer a look at the "vault." Image source.
Visible storage is often presented without substantive interpretation by museum professionals. This is considered a positive characteristic from some perspectives, but can also be a distraction. Lubar (2017) discusses the potential benefits of visible storage for visitors, including a more democratic and nonhierarchical experience with the collection, a look at what’s “behind the scenes,” shared authority, and an understanding that storage and conservation are integral to the museum’s mission, but he also points out that without interpretation, visible storage can reinforce existing ideas and beliefs and even misrepresent what exactly happens behind the scenes. Open visible storage exhibits could invite visitors to make their own connections between objects, or, on the other end of the spectrum, completely overwhelm visitors by decontextualizing objects from relevant supporting information. In a review of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s visible storage exhibit, Rosen (2011) questions the respect shown for objects when displayed in visible storage and how accessible the collection is for visitors, who search for context in the arrangement of objects, even though the curators insist that placement is random. While it could take some curatorial authority away from the museum, visible storage could also illuminate the beginnings of the curatorial process in addition to demonstrating the care that collections require in storage.
While a balance between protection of the collection and accessibility is necessary for visible storage, a balance must also be struck between autonomy and contextualization. When I visited the open storage exhibit at the Cincinnati Art Museum, I learned more about the museum’s functions and responsibilities than I did about the collection objects. I was impressed by the sheer number of objects on display and driven to learn more about how the objects that are rarely seen by the public are stored and cared for. But I wasn’t as interested in diving deeper into any of the contextual information related to the objects or making connections between the objects. Although I wasn’t necessarily interested in the curatorial aspects as a result of my experience with visible storage, my interest in collections care ended up turning into a career path, one focused on the study of museums themselves rather than specific content, such as art or history. While we can’t expect that every visitor to visible storage will be drawn to the museum profession, I think that we can leverage visitors interest in collections care to improve their museum experience and their understanding of museums, hopefully even increasing the value they place on museums and garnering their support. However, a number of things need to continue to be considered. Is this experience enough for visitors? If relevant information is more readily available along with the objects, will visitors use it to create connections and form new ideas? If visible storage is most powerful in making collections care more visible, once visitors are more aware of collections care, what’s next? How can we make collections care even more visible as part of the museum experience?
Domus. (2015, August 13). The veil and the vault. Retrieved from
Latham, K.F. (2007). The invisibility of collections care work. Collections, 3(1), 103-112.
Lubar, S. (2017). Turned inside out. In Inside the lost museum: Curating, past and present, pp. 227-237. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press.
Rosen, S. (2011, December 28). Questions about CAM ‘Collections.’ City Beat. Retrieved from https://www.citybeat.com/arts-culture/big-picture/article/13010558/questions-about-cam-collections