Mary, Maija, and Toshiko: Re-Thinking Open Storage in the Collections Wing

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.

Ceramics vault in the newly built Collections Wing.  The first shelf is temporary shelving - it is used to curate within the collection. 2012. Jim Haefner/SmithGroup/Cranbrook Art Museum

The ceramics vault in the newly built Collections Wing. The first shelf is temporary shelving – Museum and Center staff use it to curate within the collection. Jim Haefner/SmithGroup/Cranbrook Art Museum, 2012.

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