“We’ll help the British Museum, the Science Museum, and the V&A move their collections out of storage and on display.”
George Osborne, 2015 Autumn Statement and Spending Review Speech, November 25, 2015
In an announcement that surprised no-one in the museum world, in today’s Autumn Statement and Spending Review Chancellor Of The Exchequer George Osborne announced the sale of Blythe House, a massive former postal sorting office turned storage facility in West London, owned by the Department Of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), currently housing collections from the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum Group and the British Museum.
In line with the current and previous government’s attempt to raise cash through one-off sales of government-owned buildings, the expectation is presumably that the sale of this exceptionally large building in an exceptionally expensive part of London will generate an exceptionally large sum of money. A month ago the Museums Association reported on the three museums and their contingency plans with respect to the possible sale of Blythe House. The V&A noted that they were looking at the option of relocating their “world-class reserve collections to a state-of-the-art, accessible collections centre in London”, preferably near to the new V&A East in the former Olympic Park, the British Museum noted both that it “aims to house more of its collection on the [Central London] Bloomsbury site”, but also that “until these plans are realised, Blythe House is the best solution for housing these objects”, and The Science Museum Group declined to comment and referred all queries to the DCMS.
Museums with enormous collections need enormous amounts of storage. It is a given that only a tiny percentage of the collections will ever be on display; the question is what sort of storage should be provided, and where should it be located. In addition to the possible urban solution (BM) and the possible suburban solution (V&A), is the nonurban solution: something similar to what the Science Museum Group already operates at its former aircraft hangar suite at Wroughton in Wiltshire, where a large amount of its large objects are stored. What is gained through cheaper and larger property is balanced against remoteness: museums, just like libraries and archives grappling with very large amounts of stuff, must consider carefully all the multiple ways in which “access” is desired and facilitated.
Whatever their varied plans, the one term that is seldom used these days to describe a site is “store”. “Collections research centre”, “collections study centre”, “museum support centre” are the preferred sort of terms: dynamic places where collections are located, conserved, researched, made accessible, but never merely “a store” or “the store”. “Storage facility” is just about acceptable, evoking as it does, industrious work, rather than (merely) stationary objects; “vault”, a term that evokes inaccessibility, secrecy, and security, for so long a easy analogy for museum storage, is now taboo. Accessibility, and visibility, two often-related but nevertheless distinct things, are emphasised, as is transparency: the governmental/managerial claim to accountability and accessibility is made literal through the see-through nature of new facilities, where transparent glass replaces opaque walls, and “behind-the-scenes” tours are obligatory.
As I write this the details are not clear, but the Museums Association notes that the Chancellor has today announced £150 million to replace Blythe House with as-yet-unspecified “world-class storage facilities”. That’s not quite how the Chancellor phrased it in the Commons, however. It might be unfair to hold him absolutely accountable to the precise meaning of every utterance he made during a 65-minute speech, but this was a scripted and repeatedly drafted document, wherein clarity and concision were presumably considered at length. How to express the sale of Blythe House as a positive opportunity in a solitary sentence? “We’ll help the British Museum, the Science Museum and the V&A move their collections out of storage and on display.” From storage, to display: what is desirable here is less of the former and more of the latter. This opposition is simplistic, however. Whatever happens to these collections, they will go from one type of storage to another type of storage. They are not going to go “on display” en masse. Yet when forced to summarise and put a positive spin on what will now happen, the Chancellor and his speechwriters rely on the trope that stored objects are not being sufficiently put to work, and that putting them on display is the most obvious and best way to make them accessible. The distinction between what will happen and how it is represented in discourse highlights how currently dominant is the natural framing of the value and worth of collections in terms of visual display, or, how currently dominant is the natural framing of accessibility of collections as the same thing as visibility of collections.
In seeking to emphasise the desirability of accessibility, the Chancellor invokes visibility/display, and he is not alone in this slippage when discoursing upon contemporary museums. Making objects more visible does not necessarily make them more accessible. Many “visible storage” strategies within museums over the past 15 or so years entail the display of a greatly increased number of objects, sometimes making a virtue of revealing what museum storage “really looks like”, but this does not necessarily make the collections easier to research, or comprehend, or indeed critique. A collections centre should provide access to the collections for a variety of end users, but this is quite distinct from making them all on display. Many collections’ long-term value as both historical records and objects of research, teaching and outreach stems from them explicitly not being on display, for conservation reasons, and also because a stored object is often easier to retrieve and inspect, and indeed do things with, than a displayed object. This is all undoubtedly well understood by the DCMS and indeed most museums, yet visibility as an inherently good thing is such an ubiquitous way of talking about museums in public that, ironically, we seemingly can’t see past it or through it. This is my (small) point here: reducing museums to a simple opposition between storage and display is wearying, and this discourse does not do justice to all the creative ways in which museums are thinking about making their collections truly accessible.