Unpacking Museum Storage

August 16, 2016

Recently there has been a lot of press about the proliferation of art storage facilities.  Most of these articles take a negative view of the industry, assuming that valuable cultural objects are being hoarded and kept out of public view.  While it is true that the public doesn’t get to see many of the works in storage, art in storage is far from dead and inactive.  In fact, art storage serves a vital and necessary function for the world’s cultural institutions.

Museum storage is essential as institutional collections are often much, much larger than the average museum-goer realizes. The largest museums will often only be able to display a small fraction of the works in its collection at any given time.

A museum benefits from having a larger collection, as the curators can create a richer and more diverse dialogue with the public through exhibitions that draw from a broad base of works. Museums must continually acquire or borrow new artworks and combine them with works from their existing collection to create exciting programming that keeps visitors coming back for more.

Storage is also crucial for long-term preservation: the museum’s ability to conserve artwork is one of the reasons collectors choose to gift their artwork to museums in the first place.  Some works are extremely fragile and sensitive to light and handling.  The works of Egon Schiele, Mark Rothko, and Henri Cartier-Bresson are widely known to mostly exist in storage – all of these artists’ works are extremely light-sensitive.  Were they to be displayed for a long time these works would quickly be destroyed (the Rothko murals at the Harvard Art Museum are excellent examples of this).  By following a thoughtful collections management program and keeping delicate works in storage spaces specially designed for their conservation, museums secure these important works for study and appreciation by future generations.

Storage can be an active space – I see it every day here at UOVO, which looks nothing like the gloomy, inaccessible vaults painted by the media. My department focuses on providing services to cultural centers which include museums, universities, foundations, archives, and not-for-profit exhibition spaces.  More than just storage, UOVO is a collection center, a vibrant hub of preservation, study, and conservation – it’s a facility in which conservators and scholars and curators work every day.  Whether it’s planning the next exhibition, caring for delicate works, or deepening an understanding of an artist’s legacy, everyone in this building is working to preserve our shared cultural heritage.


Chris Wise
Executive Vice President, Museum Collections and Exhibitions

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