Decant Day, 30 March 2016: ‘Off The Shelf’ at the British Museum

By Lottie Clark, Decant Curator

Being involved in the Museum Decant doesn’t always mean packing boxes! We also have to stay connected to what the sector is up to and keep abreast of new trends and changes to practice and policy. Through this we can find out what other institutions are doing to combat certain issues. We can also tell people what we’re up to here in Plymouth – and hopefully inspire them to take those ideas back to their places of work.

So, on St. Patrick’s Day I got an excruciatingly early train and headed to the British Museum for the Museums Association’s ‘Off The Shelf’ event.

The aim of the day was to look at how different institutions deal with the challenges of efficient museum storage. It doesn’t sound like the most thrilling subject – but during our decant we’ll be moving 1.5 million objects to offsite storage and back so that’s a lot of storage to consider!

Off the Shelf
The ‘Off The Shelf’ event was a really inspiring day

Emma Chaplin was our Chair – a self-confessed storage nerd whose opening statement included: “There is nothing that makes my heart sing like walking into a gleaming, well organised store.” Who can argue with that?!

Suffice to say, there are some incredible things happening underneath (and outside of) our UK Museums when it comes to storage. For instance, the British Museum’s World Conservation and Exhibition Centre was a development that took seven years with a total cost of £135million. Aside from the eye-watering figures involved one of the key features is that 70% of the Centre is below ground – avoiding the need to encroach on the Museum’s Grade I listed buildings. The project also saw the installation of a 42 ton truck lift – the largest in Europe – and electronic racking. A lot to get excited about!

Although many museums will never have the funding to undertake a project like this, it can still be inspirational. Tony Spence, Head of Collection Services, spoke about how the starting point – identifying the need – was the same as it would be for any other cultural institution. For the British Museum this store was needed urgently to re-home elements of their world cultures collections. The truck lift – flashy though it may seem – was actually a pivotal part of the store design as it increases the amount of the collection the British Museum can now loan out to other institutions. This includes large-scale items like their birchbark canoes – which as you can see from the image below require a hefty amount of space and people to move!

Birchbark Canoe
Moving a birchbark canoe © Tony Spence – WCEC

One of the biggest questions of the day was about access. Should stores be accessible to the public? What are the benefits and the risks involved in this? National Museums Scotland thought about these things when they were developing their offsite store. When identifying the need for their new storage facility the priority was to open up their collections for research – with the notable example of their 64,000 bird skins.

The bird skins had long been identified as highly unlikely to be on display, but are in continued use by members of the research community. Behind-the-scenes access can be just as crucial to some visitors as public events and exhibitions – who wants to rummage through unmarked drawers crammed with objects? Re-thinking your storage solutions can often help with this – so, National Museums Scotland recategorised their bird skins according to their DNA Taxonomic Category. This made it easier for researchers to find what they were looking for and resulted in a good sort out too!

Bird Skins
Storing 64,000 bird skins © Chanté St Clair Inglis

These are the sort of things we are continually having to think about during the decant process here at the Museum. There are many more steps involved than just going ‘from A to B’. We need to ensure our collections are moved to rigorous high standards and with the utmost care. This includes having all our paperwork and digital documentation up to scratch as well.

The ‘Off The Shelf’ event was a great way to get inspired and talk to other museum professionals about what they’re doing to improve and develop their storage. I’m sure there’ll be more events like this for us to attend in the future.

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