Wednesday 26 January 2011


Every so often a New Zealand collecting institution - mostly likely Te Papa - will get a bit of a bash in the media for only having X percentage of its collection on show.

Every year, institutions' collections grow. In general, their floor space doesn't. Also - don't tell everyone - these collections aren't made up of 100% bona fide masterpieces and startling evidence of the snowflake-like uniqueness of every member of our species. Rather, all collections include their portion of dross (gifts that had to be accepted; things that seemed good or important at the time - and may seem good or important again in the future; things that are useful adjuncts to more important pieces, but not exhibition-worthy on their own; things whose value is in their potential for research rather than display) and the job of the curator (or exhibition developer) is to winnow their way through the stacks and the boxes, seeking to tell us a story with selected collection items.

I was reminded of this when reading the BBC article 'London museums urged to show more 'hidden' artefacts' recently. The article describes the Museum Association's call for museums to do-more-with-less and get more stuff on the floor despite funding cuts. It also reveals that "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." It continues

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."

In March 2010, caught up in the (justified) adoration surrounding the British Museum's 100 Objects project, the BBC ran a more sympathetic article about going into the stacks and understanding why the institution holds 30,000 stone hand-axes. The short answer, is, of course, that this is museum's jobs: to create and maintain comprehensive collections of whatever it is they're charged with creating collections of. We as taxpayers and ratepayers and voters have, tacitly, endorsed this.

In one of those coincidences, the Wall Street Journal came out this week with an article about museum storage, this one looking at the major New York museum's offsite locations.

The museums are tight-mouthed when it comes to these art warehouses. They all declined to give The Wall Street Journal access.

"The Met has never—not in my 18 years here, anyway—publicly discussed…its storage facilities, either on- or off-site," spokesman Harold Holzer said in response to a request for access to its warehouse. A spokeswoman for the Whitney said it "doesn't participate in stories on its storage facility mainly due to security issues."

But through interviews with current and former museum employees familiar with the sites, as well as property records and other public documents, the Journal can for the first time paint a landscape of New York's secret Museum Mile. To accommodate security concerns, addresses aren't being published.

Addresses might not be published, but descriptions like this are:
The Met quietly maintains a six-story warehouse near the FDR Drive on the Upper East Side. Steps from a specialty-foods shop and a sports facility, the building hints at its art trove only via two small security cameras and a swipe-card mechanism installed on its exterior.
I have to say, I was unsettled like this. Yes, I'm curious about the parts of collections that aren't on display, and interested in how we, the public, can gain more access to them, through open days, study rooms, publication and digitisation.

But I can't see any benefit to the WSJ publishing this information, and I do see a small amount of risk. Sure, it's unlikely that a dashing international art thief will read visit Midtown, WSJ in hand, and scope the joints. I'm sure the dashing art thief would have far better sources of information. But still - where's the gain?

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