Precious artifacts and national treasures hidden away in the underbelly of museums are not as safe as we think. A recent international survey on museum storage by ICCROM
(International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) confirms that all over the world, museum collections in storage suffer from poor management, lack of maintenance, adequate space and equipment. This is particularly disturbing because on average 90% of museum objects are in storage, and despite poor conditions, collections continue to grow exponentially.
Of the 1490 responses received from 136 countries, 1 in 4 museums report that their storage areas are so overcrowded that it has become difficult or impossible to get from one end to the other.
For 2 in 3 museums, the overall lack of space is a problem identified as major or drastic. However, the survey points to important root causes: 2 in 5 museums report an important lack of management support for storage-related activities and a lack of trained staff.
Equally striking is the fact that in 1 out of 3 museums, it seems unclear who is responsible for storage. Furthermore, in 1 out of 10 museums, the theft of objects from the collection is considered to be a major problem.
One museum wrote: Our storage is 400% over capacity and growing at a rate of 100-200 new objects per year.
The main problem is taking care of incoming material. A documentation backlog of 10+ years is routine, said another.
For the last 20 years, ICCROM has worked to improve the condition of museum storage worldwide by organizing international training activities, developing assessment tools, raising public awareness and sending expert missions.
Mr. Gaël de Guichen, Special Advisor to the Director General of ICCROM, commented: This is the first time we have a clear picture of the situation. In my 40 years of service at ICCROM, which has taken me all over the world, I estimated that about 60% of museum storage was in unacceptable conditions. With this data, we have a clearer picture of the problem areas. Most importantly, we have confirmation that this is not a developed vs. developing country issue: all countries find themselves in the same situation.
The survey ran from June to September 2011 and was developed as part of a joint activity between ICCROM and UNESCO on the Preventive Conservation of Endangered Museum Collections in Developing Countries. Last month, ICCROM and UNESCO launched RE-ORG [http://www.re-org.info], a new online tool for storage reorganization developed by a task force of museum professionals from 15 countries on 5 continents to assist small museums in reorganizing their storage and documentation systems. Online registration to RE-ORG is free and grants access to guidelines, assessment tools, an image database, and teaching materials.
In response to the survey results, ICCROM is presently looking for partnerships and funding to launch an international programme to strengthen professional and institutional capacity in addressing the key needs identified in this survey.