Elisabeth Bletsoe tells us about the concept of visible storage and how it ties in with one of our latest projects at the museum.
“Visible storage” is becoming a trendy new concept in many museums around the world, where public access is maximised and collections are revealed that are otherwise hidden from view. Most museums have only a small percentage of their artefacts on display which makes consideration of storage space and the internal conditions in which they are kept very significant. As time goes on, curators have to take into account increase in their collections as well as technology and filing systems that become obsolete.
A balance must be maintained between collections care and the need to keep visitors coming through the doors, so inventive ways of encouraging the public constantly need to be found. Visible storage is one new method of preserving collections in safe and visually stimulating environments, providing a behind-the-scenes window while maintaining conservation control. It is also a way of “democratising” the collections, making them available to all.
At Sherborne Museum, our book collection was kept behind closed doors in the small hall at the foot of the stairs; some of the volunteers themselves were not even aware of its existence. The space itself was not particularly aesthetically pleasing, with an old storage heater and a clumsy lectern for the signing-in book constantly in the way. Despite the display of 17th century spoons, it seemed to be an area to hurry through to somewhere else. We decided to reveal the book collection with some glass doors.
Elaine Taylor, our registrar, had a contact in Jamie of J. Smith Woodwork, a craftsman able to work with both wood and glass (see http://www.jsmithwoodwork.co.uk). Another volunteer, Celia Frear, reorganised and dusted the collection and also sourced professional spacers, labels and pamphlet holders. I had the heater and lectern removed and applied for a grant from the Dorset Museums Association as well as asking a local firm, Valmeira Glass, for sponsorship to which they generously agreed.
The hall space has evolved from being a wasted area into one in which it is now pleasant to linger; we have about 600 titles relating to Sherborne and Dorset to browse through and reflect upon. Although the books are not available to take away from the Museum, they can be borrowed, under supervision, for research in our workrooms on request.