Monday 18 January 2016

WCMT Acquittal Draft: Visible Storage

I'm currently attacking, chunk by chunk, my acquittal for the funding I received from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for my research trip around American museums last year. It struck me that rather than release it all as one big fat PDF I might try posting drafts of sections here, for any feedback that might be forthcoming. This first posting looks at one of my four research areas, visible storage.

I should emphasise that this really is a *draft* and changes to the final document are inevitable.

1.1 Introduction

Open collections, or visible storage, is a general term used to describe public displays within museums where the emphasis is placed upon access and serendipitous discovery rather than a curated, white-wall experience. Visible storage is a way of giving museum visitors a feeling of being 'behind the scenes' in the normally off-limits art collection store, and addresses the oft-heard complaint that museums only display a tiny fraction of their permanent holdings at any given time.

Visible storage displays began being introduced in the mid 1970s, as museums moved towards a more educational and audience-focused mission. In these space, objects are usually displayed in fairly functional cases and shelving, closely grouped. Objects may be minimally labelled, or described through numbering, and handbooks or database access is provided to assist the visitor to learn more: lengthy descriptive labels are rare. Objects do not tend to be moved or exchanged often, although items may be withdrawn for exhibition or loan. Small temporary display spaces may be built into the larger space, offering the opportunity to create 'focus' exhibitions on certain groups of objects with more interpretation.

Sculpture, ceramics, glass, design objects, furniture and paintings are well suited to this form of long term display. Light-sensitive materials such as textiles and watercolours are rarely displayed in this manner, as the conservation risk is too high.

In American museums, visible storage ranges from small galleries, almost like nooks (such as that at the Dallas Museum of Art displaying ceramics and glass) to large purpose-built spaces that may include space for researchers to work. It is worth noting that while these study centres are presented as 'uncurated' spaces (suggesting that the objects on display have not been selected with the same level of curatorial decision-making as objects in a normal gallery exhibition, and that the display has not been designed with the same level of aesthetic attention) there is a strong shared visual language and interpretation approach to visible storage. A virtue is made of providing only minimal labelling or interpretation, meant to encourage browsing and a visual, rather than textual, engagement with the objects. Objects are grouped by medium, size, type, or place of origin (carved wooden toys / furniture / large sculpture / metalwork) as opposed to chronologically, thematically, or by artist, as a visitor would expect in a normal exhibition. Display cases and racks are functional (glass and metal cases, or large heavy drawers) or old-fashioned (small, wooden): white plinths of the sort used in collection or temporary galleries are rarely employed. The overarching narrative is that visible storage encourages unmediated access where visitors are free to make their own observations and engage in slow, close looking: this is, of course, as conscious a curatorial and design choice as any other arrangement of objects into a gallery display.

1.2 Henry Luce Foundation support

Between 1985 and 2001 the Henry Luce Foundation, through its American Art Program, gave significant amounts of funding to four museums to create visible storage spaces.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1985 the Met received the first Luce Foundation grant to create a visible storage center. The 16,000 square foot facility named the Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art, opened in 1988 and displays a significant portion of their American fine art and decorative art collection (over 10,000 objects). Items are grouped by material (painting, sculpture, furniture and woodwork, glass, ceramics, silver and metalwork) and within those categories by date. Light-sensitive works such as textiles and watercolours are not on view but can be seen by appointment.

New York Historical Society

The NYHS was the second recipient of a Luce Foundation grant for visible storage. In this instance, rather than fitting out a display space, the grant was used to create views into actual storage spaces, giving visual access to approximately 40,000 objects. This facility, the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, opened in 2000. The Center is currently undergoing an extensive renovation.

Brooklyn Museum

The Brooklyn Museum received a $10 million grant in 2001 towards a reinstallation of their permanent collection galleries displaying their American Art collection, and a visible storage center. The Luce Center for American Art is a 5,000 square foot space displaying approximately 2000 objects, from Tiffany glass to contemporary furniture, and with nearly 600 paintings on rolling racks. Space is set aside for small feature exhibitions and representative selections of Native American and Spanish colonial objects are included. Database access points are built into the space.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

SAAM received a $10 million grant to create the Luce Foundation Center in 2001; $7 million towards the development of the Center and $3 million towards an endowment to support ongoing staffing and programmes. A library within the museum's 19th century building - previously the National Patents Office - was renovated to create the Center. Approximately 3,3000 objects are spread over three levels: large sculptures on the bottom floor, and then paintings and objects in cases cases and pneumatic drawers on two mezzanine levels. Objects on display vary from portrait miniatures to Roman glass vessels to folk art paintings. The drawers make it possible to display some light sensitive materials, as they are climate controlled and only lit when opened.

The Luce Conservation Center is adjacent to the space, allowing behind-the-scenes view of conservation procedures. Study tables and some database access points are built into the space.

1.3 Visits

Smithsonian American Art Museum

I first visited the Luce Foundation at SAAM in mid 2013. At the time I found the experience engaging; the eclectic mixing of objects, the lack of overt supervision which created a more intimate sense as a visitor - like browsing in someone's house while they were in another room. There was no-one to discourage photography on either visit, and the setting - wooden balustrades, large chandeliers, small staircases between floors - lends to the old-fashioned, romantic atmosphere - almost like a very good antique store.

The experience is however becoming tired. I did not notice any changes having taken place in the two years between my visits, and in fact a set of the pneumatic drawers that had were not functioning in 2013 were still out of order in 2015.

The database stations are becoming outmoded and the research space is basic. The Center was unstaffed on the weekend that I visited. While the bones are in place for a rich experience, my second visit to the space was curiously unengaging; this was a surprise to me, because my own tendencies as a visitor incline me towards galleries like this.
Brooklyn Museum The Brooklyn Museum's Luce Center for American Art is entered off the permanent galleries displaying the American Art collection - being redesigned in early 2016, these galleries displayed American art, design and craft along with Native American and Spanish colonial-era art in eight thematic displays that were highly designed, richly coloured, and mixed objects from different genres in each display.

The Luce Center had a strikingly different aesthetic. The back of the space - behind a glass wall - is devoted to painting racks, of which only the first row is visible. The rest of the space is full of tall, multi-level glass and steel cases, giving a warehouse-like atmosphere. Lighting is kept dim, and many cases have a flashlight attached to them to allow for better inspection. The objects vary greatly in size, from jewellery in drawers to large statues in their own cases. Database access is provided through screens affixed to the sides of cases with a metal chair provided. The overall effect was more dramatic and contemporary than SAAM, but the space also felt dim, cool, and not conducive to lingering, compared, for example, to recent work done at the Museum to make the foyer a more hospitable space, with comfortable seating with inbuilt device chargers.

I met with the exhibition designer who had originally worked on the construction of the space. The industrial materials were chosen to be cost-effective, but also to contrast to the curated galleries. The brief sought to communicate the sense of the wealth and diversity of the collections, and this is achieved. The lighting is in need of renewal, but this is not a priority, and hence the space is darker than intended - with the spartan furnishings, the overall effect is a space rich for exploration, but not comfortable to spend time in.

While at the Brooklyn Museum I also visited Double Take: African Innovations, a temporary display of objects from the museum's African Art collection. This is the second shorter term exhibition of this collection, undertaken during a longer term renovation of the museum's first floor galleries.

The main gallery displays nearly 40 collection items arranged in 15 pairs or small groups, each exploring subjects, themes and artistic techniques that recur throughout African history: the emphasis is on continuity and innovation. Each display encourages viewers to draw connections between the artworks they are looking at. In an adjacent gallery, a further 150 items are displayed in what the curator describes as an 'unstructured sampling': the display method is more closely packed and presented with less interpretation than the next door gallery, but is still displayed in more a a 'gallery' aesthetic than the Luce Center. Visitors are encouraged to make their own new pairings of these objects through an interactive display, and share them on social media using a hashtag.

I found this mixed display - a modernist hang, where artworks are given a great deal of space and interpretation, alongside a denser, compacted display of multiple items on a similar theme - to be the most successful of the visible storage approaches I saw on my visit. Despite coming to this gallery at the end of my seven-hour visit to the museum, I was still pulled in to both the artworks and the pairing-making activity. The contrast between overtly curated display and ostensibly random sampling gives the impression of both an experience that has been created for you as the viewer, and an experience that is handed over to you to serendipitously explore, and to respond to in a concrete way.

1.4 Recent developments in visible storage

Visible storage and digitised collections have evolved alongside each other as responses to the constraint of physical space, and museums' inability to ever properly display more than a small percentage of their holdings in curated exhibitions. While the area of digital developments is extremely well documented, there is little research or evaluation generally available on the history, trends, and visitor experience of visible storage.

The general trend for new and planned visible storage spaces is to take a more dramatic or overtly designed approach to the design of displays, contra to the earlier emphasis on evoking or replicating the functional design of actual storage spaces.

For example, the York Museums has recently opened the Centre of Ceramic Art. The museum holds Britain's most significant collection of British studio pottery, and its building was recently redeveloped to create this centre. A large number of collection items are presented in a variety of ways: the 17-metre long Wall of Pots contains over 1000 objects from the Roman era to the present day, currently organised by colour; two domestically-scaled rooms have been created to display the collection of Anthony B Shaw, mingling objects with bookshelves; and for the opening of the centre ceramicist Clare Twomey was commissioned to create Manifest: 10,000 Hours, a towering installation of 10,000 identical white slip-cast vessels.

In another example, the New York Historical Society (a previous recipient of a Luce Foundation grant for visible storage) is currently renovating its fourth floor galleries. Opening in January 2017, the renovated floor will include a gallery designed by architect Eva Jiřičná dedicated to the Tiffany lamp collection; the newly established Center for the Study of Women’s History, which will present exhibitions and public programmes along with an 'immersive multimedia film', and a  and a 're-imagined display of collection highlights' in the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture.

An alternative approach is evinced at the newly opened Broad Museum in Los Angeles. The architectural conceit of this building, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is of the 'vault and the veil'. The building, wrapped in a striking articulated fibreglass-enriched concrete mesh, is constructed around a large central well which forms the collection storage space. Windows are let into the public access staircase and the first floor, allowing visitors to peek into the working storage space. While convincing as a design notion, the actual visitor experience is of small apertures in out of the way locations, that do not provide large or comfortable views. The windows, let into corners on the staircase, are surprisingly easily missed and uncomfortable to linger at, as there is nowhere to lean or sit, or to avoid becoming an obstruction to other visitors' progress.

An interactive display at the Cooper Hewitt offers another alternative for mass-access to a collection, through digitisation rather than display of objects. In the immersion room, visitors can access the museum's extensive collection of wallcoverings. Using an interactive table, visitors can browse through wallpapers and project them onto the walls of the small gallery. Visitors can also use the collection items for inspiration for their own designs, which they can create on the table and project. The Immersion Room is not only popular with visitors, but a strong attractor for social media engagement, through the sharing of photos taken in the gallery. Much like the Brooklyn Museum's African art display, the room enables exploration of a large collection, visitors' own creation and then subsequent sharing; its very positive reception suggests these could be key features in future developments of such spaces.

1.5 Conclusion

Visible storage spaces tend to be heavily invested in upfront and then not updated for a considerable period of time: any area of a museum that is left unloved for too long inevitably begins to convey some sense of that neglect to visitors, like a room in a house that is never aired out.

My experiences on this research trip suggest that the 'behind the scenes' aesthetic is beginning to pall, and that "mixed-density" displays, combining the familiar aesthetics of both gallery exhibition and collection storage, with a higher level of interpretation and greater opportunity for visitor interaction, are becoming more appealing.

Visible storage is also an area of museum practice that is ripe for more research into visitors' interest, expectations, and actual experience. This is especially so in a digital age where access to a museum's holdings through technology (be that an interactive screen, table, or personal device)is becoming the default setting, at the same time that museums employ more and more design techniques to create immersive and spectacular displays in order to remain compelling in an increasingly visual and design-driven world.

1.6 Further information

Henry Luce Foundation American Art Program

Celestine Bohlen, 'Museums as Walk-In Closets; Visible Storage Opens Troves to the Public', New York Times, 8 May 2001

Elizabeth Cooper, 'Letting Some Light Into the Attic', New York Sun, 13 January 2005

Georgina Goodlander, 'Overview of the Luce Foundation Center', presentation notes, 25 November 2009

Jori Finkel, 'LACMA, Broad, other art museums work to put storage on display', Los Angeles Times, 20 July 2013

Cameron Maynard, 'Turning museums inside out with beautiful visible storage', Atlas Obscura, 24 September 2014

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