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Unpacking the secrets to good museum storage

Museums

Unpacking the secrets to good museum storage

How museums store their objects should be as important as how they display them, a design firm argues.


By Novid Parsi, Contributing Editor | March 16, 2022
Storage Design
Designers should pay attention to how they design their storage just as much as they pay attention to the design of display items.

Museums put a lot of thought and care into the displays of their objects. Yet almost all of these institutions can present only a fraction of their artifacts. They have to keep the rest in storage. 

That’s why museum leaders should focus as much design attention on the archives as the galleries themselves, according to a new white paper by Erin Flynn and Bruce Davis, architects and museum experts with the firm Cooper Robertson.

In the paper, which comes out later this year, Flynn and Davis argue that collection storage can no longer be an afterthought. They show how thoughtfully designed storage systems improve the accessibility of museum archives, while also creating a better environment for the preservation, protection, and study of the collections. 

One main takeaway from the paper: Good museum storage design requires a collaborative effort among architects, engineers, curators, and other specialists at the start of any museum project. At the Whitney Museum, for instance, this multidisciplinary approach led to design changes that will protect the storage areas and galleries in the event of severe weather, such as flooding. 

The paper also highlights the specific engineering conditions needed to create a cooler, drier climate in archival spaces, as well as the value of isolated mechanical systems in each gallery and storage area. 

Princeton University Museum
Princeton University Art Museum has paid more attention to archival design.

Other key takeaways:

Expanding collections often house large and mixed-media pieces, which puts more pressure on existing storage spaces.

Overcrowded storage could lead to narrowed circulation paths and jeopardize the safe retrieval of objects.

Museums need to determine if it’s more cost effective to lease offsite storage spaces or build their own.

One creative approach is visible storage. This typically involves arranging items in dense displays behind glazing to maintain proper preservation conditions while also allowing more of the collection to be on display for the public. 

Cooper Robertson has provided design and planning work for over 50 museums and collection-based institutions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA, the Gateway Arch Museum, and the upcoming Princeton University Art Museum.

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