Visible storage catches on in museums
Monday, March 28, 2005
NEW YORK (AP) -- In most museums, famous works by famous artists are shown in spacious galleries, and what a visitor views is at the discretion of the curators.
But the Brooklyn Museum's new addition catches the eye more for its volume than its vastness. Large, sleek shelving of steel and glass fill this area, giving the space a futuristic and somewhat antiseptic feel.
Inside the climate-controlled cases, oblong furniture is fitted side-by-side. Flatware, toasters and commemorative plates are displayed near dozens of Tiffany glass lamps and a large sculpture of a gorilla's head. A 1950s pink bicycle stands near ceiling-high rows of paintings.
This is Luce Center for American Art, and it is among a growing number of visible storage centers in the world. Art experts say visible storage is a good option for museums to show the public the breadth of a specific collection, but they caution that it must be used to complement, not to replace, traditional exhibits.
At the Brooklyn Museum, about 800 objects are housed in the Luce Center, including all American paintings not formerly on display. There are thousands more decorative objects, such as spoons, teapots and toasters, still in storage.
"This place would have to be as big as the Pentagon to fit our entire collection," curator Barry Hardwood said. The storage center is about 5,000 square feet.
Objects that would likely not be exhibited find homes at the center, such as a piece of furniture from the late 1800s that looks like a piano but folds out into a bed, or a chair fashioned to look like a ribbon. The area is also a high-tech study center: Each object is numbered and can be found on the computers stationed in the center, where students or researchers can find more information.
Visible storage allows visitors to view a collection for its vastness as much as for its aesthetic quality. It is inherently busier for the eye, and may appear like less of a creative experience. But curators take just as many pains organizing these centers as they would a traditional exhibit.
"It's very exciting to bring it all together in one place," said Linda Ferber, the museum's American art curator. "It's quite liberating to organize pieces in different ways, open to more interpretation."
Sense of discovery
But it's never enough space, curators say. Most museums have thousands of objects from many different collections still in storage. Some items can't be displayed, because of light sensitivity; others are lent out to other museums and galleries.
"Yes, there is a hierarchy. The most important objects will be shown, there's no doubt about that," Ferber said. "But it takes on a greater meaning when it is shown with other pieces from the era, other works of art that either complement or refute the famous work."
Curators say the model for the new visible storage space was inspired by the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The museum was developed in 1976, using display cases and drawer units to show about 14,000 objects that included everything from coins to canoes.
Harry and Audrey Hawthorne, the first director and curator respectively, created the museum as such so they could provide maximum access to the public.
"They wanted people to do it for themselves, put the collections together in the way they wanted to see it done," Jennifer Webb, a spokeswoman for the Museum of Anthropology, said.
The collection has grown considerably and now only about 40 percent of the museum's holdings are on view. Curators are planning to remodel the museum to make more room for the nearly 35,000 objects the museum has in its collection.
"It has tremendous impact on people," Webb said. "There's a real sense of discovery when you see all these objects together."
Created in 1982, the Strong Museum in Rochester, New York, is another model often copied. Part of the museum's extensive doll and toy collection, about 20,000 out of nearly 500,000 objects, is shown as visible storage. This works well to juxtapose popular toys from different eras, said Chris Bensch, vice president for collections.
"People come and say, 'Oh, wow, I used to have that lunch box,' or, 'See how toys look so different now.' It's a good way for our visitors to see the historical significance in toys," he said.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York used the Strong and Anthropology museum models to develop their own visible storage area for the American Wing. Seemingly endless rows of furniture and flatware are arranged in ceiling-to-floor cases in the back of the gallery. The collection is so large it's easy to get lost among the colonial chairs. Also created with a grant from the Luce Foundation, it is the main storage for the collection. The centers are similar, but each museum tailors the design to fit its needs.
American Wing curator Carrie Barratt said it pains curators to keep works of art in dark storage.
"There is a process of selection that goes into arranging a gallery, and you might not want to show your hand, to make a curatorial decisions of mystery and awe. But that's not so in the American Wing," she said. "The savvy members of the public ought to wonder what we have to choose from, and isn't it interesting to show them what we're choosing from to form an exhibit?"
Other museums, such as the Denver Art Museum and the gallery at the New-York Historical Society, have similar storage facilities.
Costs for creating a visible storage center are considerable, but maintaining the center costs as much as maintaining permanent collections on traditional display. Security guards must be hired, the area must be lighted and, occasionally, items must be rotated, such as sensitive works on paper. Museums will not divulge dollar figures for these costs.
"In the end, it's just as expensive as a more traditional exhibition," the Museum of Anthropology's Webb said. "You have to keep up appearances, you have to help the public understand what they are. It's different than turning off the lights and shutting the door to dark storage."
The nonprofit Henry Luce Foundation is at the forefront of visible storage -- the organization has helped fund four centers. The Met received two grants of $3.5 million for the 1988 project. Costs have since risen, and the Brooklyn Museum and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, currently under construction in Washington, D.C., received $10 million each to build storage facilities and to fund other museum projects. The estimated cost to create a center is about $5 million, estimates Ellen Holtzman, Luce Foundation program director for the arts.
"The good thing, though, by spending money to create a visible storage area, they can forgo rent payments," she said. "The bad thing is that these cases require more maintenance than regular dark storage."
In Brooklyn's case, many objects are in deep storage on the premises. Other museums were paying several hundred thousand a year for outside storage. But the Met is lucky enough to have its American collection in visible storage.
"You have to be a very responsible housekeeper. If you have things on view that are deteriorating, you see them, you can't ignore them so easily," Denver Art Museum director Lewis Sharp said.
Sharp has been at the helm in creating two visible storage centers in Denver and at the Met, where he was curator of the American Wing from 1982 to 1989. He joined the Denver museum in 1989, and the pre-Columbian collection was renovated and put it in visible storage in 1993.
In the end, curators agree, visible storage won't take over as the primary way to exhibit art. However, curators hope that visible storage inspires visitors to discuss a collection, or to learn more about objects that perhaps aren't that famous.
"The whole is sometimes more significant than an object. There is great value in seeing that together. It's always remarkable to hear the different insights that visitors to the museum is. The different associations they put together," Sharp said.