Making Collections Accessible

Most museums with collections routinely keep up to 90% of their objects in storage at any given time. Considering the current trend of making museums more audience friendly, should museums then make their collections more accessible and open to the public? How can they do so in an engaging and exciting way?

I believe that museums must make their collections available to every and any one interested in them in order to successfully serve their communities. If most museums state in their mission that they desire to educate their audience, selectively granting access to their collections contrasts with this ideal. Restricting access to collections not only creates a barrier between the museum and its audience, but it also limits the spread of knowledge, therein weakening their purpose as a public trust.

With a little ingenuity, museums can overcome this barrier while keeping their objects and storage space secure. Some institutions have begun digitizing their collections. This method allows any one with internet access to browse and observe whichever objects are available. While this method typically only grants passive engagement, it does allow the visitor to examine and research objects they otherwise might not know exist. Other museums, such as the Connecticut Historical Society, offer behind the scenes tours of their collections or willingly offer to retrieve any artifact that a visitor is interested in viewing. The audience can then view the object while interacting with a human being and staff member.

While these approaches do limit the available context of an object, they are nevertheless an interesting beginning at incorporating collections into the concept of the audience-centered museum.

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2 Responses to Making Collections Accessible

  1. Gretchen Sorin says:

    I wonder how successful open storage “exhibitions” have been? While many museums have created visible storage, perhaps beginning with the Strong Museum several decades ago I don’t know if museums have evaluated the success of such installations to determine what visitors would like access to and how they want that access. What constitutes a successful open storage exhibition?

  2. amersfoort7 says:

    I think at times that open storage can simply resemble a collection of “stuff” that a museum has no idea how to display rather than put it out to the public in this manner. I think it is a real challenge to display items in open storage in a way which conveys a story rather than appearing as a cluttered space which you could find on a pack rats’ home shelving unit.
    I did however find that the Children’s Museum of Boston successfully utilized open storage in their Japanese House. The storage was displayed behind shop-like windows which made the viewer actively peer to in an almost voyeuristic way. This format replicated a common activity as most people are accustomed to window shopping. I spoke with a staff member who told me that the space was also used for groups which under supervision were granted entrance to use these storage items as teaching tools.
    So, I think that looking as a “window shopper” allowed for curiosity to the regular museum goer and the second use of the space for group programming was ideal as a way of successfully using open storage.

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