Open storage. Two words that mean nothing to the wider public, the phrase is a loaded one for museum professionals. Love it or hate it (and I personally love it), open storage is an increasingly popular method of getting a museum collection—usually hidden away in the bowels of the institution—exposed to a wider audience. Most museums only exhibit about 10% of their collection at one time, so building or retrofitting storage spaces to allow for public viewing of objects provides an opportunity to leverage museum storage and increase visitor-object interactions. From the Luce Centers at the New York Historical Society and the Smithsonian American Art Museum to the open ceramics storage at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, more and more institutions are removing the physical barrier between their visitors and their objects—or at least replacing an opaque barrier with a glass one.
In 2008, Cranbrook Art Museum had the opportunity to redesign the museum’s storage from the ground up. The museum chose to strike a balance between the all-access open storage model of a Luce Center or the new American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the traditional, old-fashioned model of closed-off storage with the rare “behind the scenes” mediated tour. What resulted was the ceramics vault in the new Collections Wing, a secure room with a glass wall that gives visitors—who enter the Collections Wing on one of the regularly scheduled weekly vault tours—a chance to look into storage and get a sense of the scope and depth of CAM’s holdings. To add to the potential learning opportunities for visitors, no museum objects are assigned a permanent home on the first row of shelves in the vault. Instead, the empty shelves serve as a miniature curatorial opportunity, with staff members changing out the objects on display there and tour guides serving as docents for “curated” shelves.