Sunday, February 12, 2012

Icebergs of art & artifact

This article in The Age is actually a good general introduction to the realities of museum and gallery storage and display issues. Like the famous example of the iceberg, most museums and galleries have only a small proportion on show; the rest often being out of view, and often (literally) underneath.

The picture above was taken from a staircase in the Louvre, Paris, while the statistics below relate to the National Gallery of Victoria:
"At last count, the collection contained about 67,000 works, of which only around 5 per cent can be on public display in the institution's two buildings in St Kilda Road and at Federation Square."
The majority of large, national or significant collection have the majority of their material in store. A global figure is hard to arrive at, but if we had only one fifth of the world's greatest museums artifacts on show we would be doing much better than the current reality. Some figures of major UK collections here show 90% or more in store - that's less than 10% on show.

Cataloguing is a lot harder than it looks. Some of these artifacts are labelled 'object' because we don't know what it is, while other equally obscure things are classified thanks to specialist knowledge. Consider the cost of this kind of core museum storage across thousands - sometimes millions of objects, and some of the remarkable costings become understandable.

What's immediately obvious from the figures above is the difference between the art galleries (good percentages on show) and museums - ranking in the ninety-percents in store. That has a lot to do with the nature of artworks vs artifacts. And then there are exceptions like the Wallace Collection, mandated to have it 'all out at all times'. (But the Wallace is an all-around exception, being also prevented from loaning anything out, either.)

Another set of figures here come from checking some of the hyperbolistic writings of a currently fashionable writer on the Smithsonian, in the USA. Though most of what the writer puts in his book is tall tales, here the reality exceeds even his grandiose claims.

Some thing are easier to conserve and store than others. Even so, something as solid as stone can suffer from continuing decay from nasties in the air and rainwater, lichens et al. And how many of these church carvings should be preserved? It's a harder call than it may seem.

It is not that there is 90% more 'cool stuff' socked away, but that most collections have huge volumes of middling interest items that are important in the mass, but generally not individually. There's a huge number of other reasons this stuff's in store - including the plain fact that it's embarrassing. Some items can't be on show much (light sensitive works) or for political reasons (a birds egg collection, once an acceptable country museum cornerstone is a hot topic on show in the 21st century).

A collection of Kestrel eggs in the Oxfordshire Museums store. Once not an uncommon collection, from a scientifically minded person, creating such collections nowadays is essentially illegal. Many museums have such collections, inherited or from confiscated by the police. For obvious reasons putting such collections on show needs to be carefully considered, while they also remain an important biological source.

National level collections like this don't store stuff in leaky sheds (or they're not supposed to, anyway) and while the higher levers of security, protection, climate control etcetera are laudable, the usually cost top dollar - for things that ultimately aren't even seen. A (small) percentage will eventually get shown, other items will find a role for research, and a few will be 'deacessioned' a clumsy term for a tricky, and risky, museum task.

What are museums and galleries for?
Andrew Sayers, director of the National Museum of Australia, wrote last year: ''We need to redefine museums as educational resources rather than as buildings where collections are held. In fact, it is probably true to say that collections are seen by governments as more of a problem - the source of demands for ever-increasing storage facilities - rather than the assets they are.''
Some artifacts are of unarguable permanent display status, a few others should be got rid of. It's the huge number in the area between the two poles that provide the museum and gallery challenge.


All images by & copyright the author.


eileenr said...

As you can imagine, I love this posting.

Taccola said...

I thought you might... When does the statute of limitations run out on the dino adornment? ;-D