People are often surprised to discover that behind the scenes in museum storerooms across the globe, there are millions of objects that will never go on public display. Many of these objects are duplicates, ‘bulk’ collections, such as archaeological finds, or objects which could be described as “uncharismatic”. There are also objects that have become disconnected from their stories and narratives for various reasons, and so appear unable to ‘speak’.
Why keep these objects? What purpose do they serve if most museum visitors will never see them?
These questions require a re-examination of why some stored collections exist, how they came (and continue) to be established and how their relevance can be enhanced in times of severely restricted budgets.
I was recently part of an AHRC research project called “Who Cares” interventions in “unloved” museum collections, conducted with co-researchers, Dr Alison Hess from the Science Museum Group and Dr Rhianedd Smith from the Museum of English Rural Life (University of Reading). We focused on three case studies of so-called “unloved” collections: The National Slag Collection at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, the Locks and Fastenings collection at the Science Museum, London and the Museum of English Rural Life’s Hand Tools collection. Throughout our project, we were mindful that ‘display’ in an exhibition is not the only meaningful mechanism through which relationships between people and objects can be established, as this is often (wrongly) assumed to be the only ‘purpose’ a museum object has. For example, a significant number of objects collected by museums are for research or reference purposes, and the display is not the core reason for the acquisition. A proportion of collections will also be too fragile or hazardous to display, but they may still have value and significance. Part of our re-examination of stored collections was to encourage greater understanding of the multiplicity of reasons why objects may be collected in the first place and their historical trajectories.
We used the term “unloved” throughout our project and we knew that this would be a controversial choice! The majority of these objects are certainly not uncared for or neglected by their custodians, and, as we discovered, there are groups of people who had a great deal of knowledge about and passion for such collections. For us “unloved” communicated something about the ‘lack’ of personal meanings that were connected to many of these objects, making them harder for some audiences (and museums staff) to engage with. This ‘lack’ put these objects at risk of becoming even less visible and therefore potentially irrelevant. Our project sought to identify and work with specific communities outside of the museum – enthusiast groups – for whom these collections held significant meaning. We wanted to understand their enthusiasm and the forms of ‘care’ they offered to these objects with the aim of harnessing this enthusiasm to help reinvigorate the collection. Our participants also helped us to critically explore museum practices around ‘collections care,’ foregrounding museum storerooms as ontological spaces in their own right.
We were thrilled to see the edited volume ‘Exploring Emotion, Care and Enthusiasm in “unloved” Museum Collections’ (Arc Humanities Press) stemming from this research project published in July 2020. The book presents our key findings along with contributions by museum practitioners and other academics who helped us to explore this subject further and take it in different directions. For example, among the themes the book considers is the under-explored subject of emotional engagement with objects by museum staff (Dr Sheila Watson, University of Leicester), the role of artists in reframing the meaning of stored collections (Dr Alexandra Woodall, University of Sheffield) and how social media can help to connect stored collections to wider audiences (Mark Carnall, Oxford University Museum of Natural History). We hope this book will form a starting place for more work which delves deeper into the museum storeroom and helps to reveal more about our fascinating relationships with objects and the management of collections.