By Way of Introduction: Life in Storage.

Hello, my name is Stena, a postgraduate in the AGMS programme, currently retained in work placement capacity to Renaissance North West: New Light on Old Bones. My emphasis is in digital curation practices.

During a recent program meeting earlier this week I expressed concern about what would become of the objects at the Rossendale Museum that are due to be removed to storage; would they ever see the light of display again? The response to this inquiry was that there was ‘life in storage’ which seemed to make sense at the time. It has since incurred loss of sleep. What exactly does “–there is life in storage” mean in terms of the life of objects? If the life of an object is defined as going on a semiotic journey from sign through a series of shifts in symbolic interpretation, then it would seem that for an object, life in storage is no life at all; or perhaps symbolic life in stasis.

Certainly, objects are retained for use in research and because they play a vital role in the ongoing narrative of existence. But really, what use are they just sitting in a room somewhere gathering dust? I’m relatively new to the project, but it is my understanding that this question is one of the primary reasons that the New Light on Old Bones project was originally created; to generate avenues for the exploration of the extensive, extraordinary and underutilised natural history collections of Britain.

‘Underutilised’ need not be the case; we have the technology.

I would like to take a moment and indulge your patience, to show images from two of the many previous blog entries in this journal that showcase breathtakingly beautiful and/or interesting objects; all of which are currently ‘sitting on the shelf’ so to speak, except within the confines of this blog:

This then, here, and now, in digital format, is a new stage in the ‘life’ of these objects, and is perhaps one of most practical approaches to overcoming common inhibitory factors of physical display.

In my opinion, yes, digital display does raise Malraux’s questions of the relationship between the authentic and the representational.  Yes, nothing will ever replace what it’s like to feel that one is in the presence of the ‘real’ object. Yet with seven billion people on the planet, perhaps a website is as close as some visitors will ever get to being able to get to the museum venue, or participate in dialogue with other visitors and with curatorial staff. The museum of the mind as facilitated by digital media can allow for new interpretations increasing the active and practical use of these brilliant collections.

Well. I’ve said much more than originally intended! I’m very grateful to be a part of the NLOB project and look forward to reading/listening to everyone’s contributions.

Thank you and best wishes,

~Stena James.


Postscript/Reminder: Laura has set up a radio press date and release regarding the work that Kaspar and Susanne will be doing with the project. They will be interviewing with the John Gillmore show about the project on BBC Radio Lancs at 3pm on 17 January, this Monday!



Filed under The project

13 responses to “By Way of Introduction: Life in Storage.

  1. Hi Stena,

    Interesting post. I think of items in storage as having “potential energy” (in the sense of physics), like a crysalis. Even if long-term storage is a hundred years, the objects are still there (as long as they’re properly maintained), able one day to be researched, thought about, and displayed. I have more of a problem getting rid of something completely because it’s not considered useful or valuable at the time.

    I agree with you that, while the experience of a real object is irreplaceable (and to my mind defines the nature of a museum), digitising is a way to make use of objects in storage, or for people who can’t get there personally to see things. As a result, I like virutual exhibitions, but find myself still unsure about virutal museums.

    Here’s a question though – the egg picture, which is beautiful by the way, is – at least to some degree – attractive because of the quality of light, the archaic-looking sock box, and the leather book (?) on which it rests. It’s a still life, almost. If you were to replace that box with a carton of eggs from Tesco’s, would it make the same impression? I.e. at what point does the artistry of the photograph supercede the objecticity of the item on display? In this case, does the photo take on a life of its own as a unique object?

    – Eric

    • Hello Eric!

      The question regards all of the conditions mentioned in your post pertain to the uneasy relationship perceived evince between metaphysical and ethical dimensions of experience. Basically, the dialogue between being and environment or subject and context, however you wish to put it.

      I would love putting those eggs in a regular carton, taking an equally artistic photo of them and consider the difference of meaning that would be manifest–because assuredly there would be differences! The quality of the photo, as well as the positioning and presentation of the objects within the image are the message. It’s possible to argue that the pure gaze is inhibited by the veil of interpretation incumbent to the medium of presentation.

      Interpretation of the ‘eggs snuggled in their sock box’ is further complicated by being in original form (as you’ve pointed out) a composite object. The eggs are each an object, placed together within another object, housed in an environmental context; perhaps arguably a new object that is more than the sum of its parts, certainly different than the sum of its parts and generative of a new symbolic meaning (a departure from the semiotic record of sign-to-symbol that presumably each of the separate objects that comprise this new object had previous to current composition).

      Digital display may indeed be a visual equivalent of metafiction, but case-in-point, though Don Quixote is ‘fiction’ it accurately depicts social dynamics of Cervantes time, and of his struggle with concepts of chivalry, veracity, and purpose. Just as it is will all forms of translation, digital curators are challenged in their attempt to portray objects descriptively rather than prescriptively; but hasn’t that plagued curation and display from the start? The question of whether we can ever be ‘neutral’ in the narrative discourse of exposition, or find ways to fairly represent differing perspectives?

      Most immediately Hillier and Tzortzi (Space Syntax, 2006), Battro (From Malraux’s Imanginary Museum to the Virtual Museum, 1999), Lehmbruck (Psychology and Behaviour, 1974), McLuhan (Understanding Media,1964), Guiart (Oceanie in L’univers de formes,1963), and of course Malraux (The Voices of Silence, 1953) all come to mind as research and resources that are applicable and might be of interest.

      Many thanks! ~Stena

      • David Craven

        Final point to Stena, and it’s slightly (very) frivolous:
        Not entirely sure I agree with your interpretation of Don Quixote. I don’t think it does accurately represent the time, it represents one mans frustration with the reality of the period versus his idealised notions of how the world should be. Which I suppose you can argue is also, in and of itself, representative of the period. But that’s not really one for the blog!

    • David Craven

      I agree with your final point Eric. The eggs in the sock box was something Mark discovered while we had a photographer in taking images for use as part of the project. The combination of Mark seeing the potential of the box, and the eye and skill of the photographer, creates something which may transcend the ‘reality’ of the object itself. It becomes a work of art.

      We took several pictures like this, where the reality of superceded by the image. I may post some more if I get the chance.

      • I would say that both the object and the image exist as two different realities. Neither is more or less real than the other.
        Eric, you asked “at what point does the artistry of the photograph supercede the objecticity of the item on display?” – Lets not forget that when we experience these objects in a museum they are also placed within a designed aesthetically controlled and considered space.
        May also post more if I get the chance!

    • Myna Trustram

      Stena prompts the question, what might be the value of life in storage? Should we ask the same question of libraries and archives which also keep most of their collections in stores? Or indeed of private collectors?

      The universality of collecting objects and keeping them in stores suggests they are serving some purpose which I suspect, and I think I’ve said this before in this blog, is to do with providing a sense of continuity in our lives. I suspect this sense of continuity is increasingly important in western secular society.

      I am afraid all this reminds me of ‘efficiency savings’ as though there is an optimally efficient way of living which we should and could achieve. Is there an optimally efficient way of being an object? What might we lose through being efficient?

      Let’s hope the government’s efficiency savers don’t start requiring us to empty the nation’s stores of books, archives and objects because they don’t appear to be an efficient way of preserving the past or of serving a purpose which can be easily audited or even understood. Recent attempts to ‘rationalise’ museum practice (through for instance ‘rationalisation officers’) are a milder version of this admittedly unlikely scenario.

      • David Craven

        The problem is, in my experience most people are shocked to discover how much museums hold in store, which then prompts the “why?” questions. I still think it;s a question we are very bad at answering. We sort-of know we are supposed to, and we speak in abstract terms about possible future uses, rotating displays, the importance of preservation etc. But maybe we should be framing our answers in ways that speak to people in a more direct fashion? Demonstrating that “in-store” value. Continuity may well be the watchword, but we need to show people why that matters. Invariably, once they see the object and think about it, they come to the same conclusion.

        I love your point about efficient objects. This is always my fear, that we lose that sense of inherent value in the name of savings. But I do have to defend “rationalisation officers” as a friend of mine filled that role very well at Bolton.

        While it’s a hideously clunky title, the aim of the role was very valuable. It was allowing someone to dedicate themself full-time to that “why?” question and produce answers.

        Objects proposed for “rationalisation” by him, or by other staff, were then debated. Often people thought of meanings and contexts that nobody else had. It could also prove a good thought exercise. On one occasion I took the risk of proposing a small collection I didn’t actually want to lose. My aim was, by proposing something that theoretically did not fit with the Acquisitions and Disposals policy, that I could have other people argue the merits of historic collections in their own right. It was a gamble that worked and the collection has a more stable long-term future because it has demonstrated it’s value (in many senses) to the institution.

        We cannot just horde indefinitely, space is at a premium (and this can be seen as a metaphor for human existence on Earth too, sustainability etc). So we have to keep asking ourselves “why?” about our collecting habits.

        At Bolton, the Rationalisation Officer found new homes and creative use for collections. Seeing old sewing machines and mangles refitted for practical use in Africa was a real achievment. They had no meaning in-store anymore due to the sheer numbers held there, and elsewhere.

  2. David Craven

    Thanks for an interesting first post Stena.

    If memory serves, “life in storage” was my line. It was a throwaway comment that I didn’t really think about, something I take for granted. But it’s not always true. I agree with Eric that any object has potential energy. It’s then down to museum staff, be they curators or not, and visitors, researchers, artists, and other interested parties to release that.

    Over the six years I was at Bolton I had local societies, schools, academics, students, and artists in the store making use of the geology collections. Many of my colleagues came to look too, maybe just to see, maybe looking for ideas. All of these activites released some of that energy. Temporary displays did too. it’s amazing how many opportunities you can find, on exhibitions that may at first glance have little conenction to your subject, if you just talk with your colleagues.

    A problem with assessing the value of any object is that what seems useless to one person may acquire use with a fresh pair of eyes. That’s why most in museums take such a strong line on disposal.

    So what value is there in digital curation?
    I think full digital catalogues are a noble, but time-consuming, aspiration. Do that many people really want to see every one of a thousand stored ammonites? I doubt it. Anyone who really cares will want to see them physically.

    But a well-curated digital exhibition, where the objects tell new stories in new ways, that has real merit. It’s something museums can do much more, much better.

    • Yes, the inspiration for this post goes to you with many thanks! I am not in disagreement with the points you’ve made–all well taken. In addition to how digital exhibition and display can lend itself to visitor accessibility and new ways of seeing, digital curation projects such as eMob offer unique opportunities for gathering information about the objects in collection from communities of origin, generating new avenues for ethnographic practice. Thanks again, ~Stena

      • Just for info – it came up in discussion while we were out in Rawtenstall visiting elderly residents at various care homes, that digital access to the collections is very much appreciated. Even better is somebody coming along and bringing objects with them, but for quick day to day access or specific requests it is certainly on the wish list (for those not able to visit the museum due to their health). They use what is there, but would appreciate something a bit more user friendly.

    • Helena Jaeschke

      David said: “Anyone who really cares will want to see them physically.” Well, of course we will want to, but being unable to travel to the museum, being able to see the objects digitally online is a huge help and a great source of inspiration. It is not the same as seeing the object and all the associated information (even the sock box may have something to tell us about the collection and its history) but it is a huge step forward from seeing only a list in a catalogue or a vague reference. So, although online illustrated catalogues are time-consuming, please don’t stop creating them.

      • David Craven

        Yes, I should have phrased that better. I don’t mean that if you care, you visit. I mean anyone conducting thorough research into such a collection will likely need to visit.

        I still think complete catalogues are beyond the scope of most museums.

  3. Christian Baars

    Hi Stena,

    There are many reasons why objects are placed in storage. I recently explained to a group of pupils that the museum looks after an enormous number of objects and specimens, and we just don’t have the gallery space to display them all at the same time. This is, of course, only part of the truth. Many objects, particularly in palaeontology, my own field, are just not perfect enough to display a beautiful example of a particular organism. We also often hold multiple examples of the same species because taxonomic research requires comparisons between as many specimens as possible to define species boundaries.

    This does not mean, however, that individual specimens do not have any value. Value is a multifaceted concept, which is not limited to aesthetic or financial value. There is also, for instance, didactic, scientific, cultural, heritage, or entertainment value. It is not easy to determine the value of a specimen because some aspects of valuation are subjective and context sensitive, and may depend on the purpose of the valuation and the perspective and level of knowledge and expertise of the valuer – which, in museum collections, will often be the curator.

    I like Eric’s analogy to ‘potential energy’ – sometimes the value of a specimen/object can only be unlocked following a new scientific discovery in a related field, or the appointment of a curator who has the relevant expertise. And there is always a danger in not having enough knowledge about collections – lack of information almost inevitably equates with loss of value.

    If you’re interested in my thoughts on this, I have written a little discussion on the value of historically important museum collections, and how additional value may be unlocked by scientific research. This will be published in the next issue of the ‘Geological Curator’, the journal of the Geological Curators Group.

    Disposal of collections is a contentious issue, and the decision to dispose of natural history specimens in particular should only be undertaken after very, very careful consideration of all potential implications – including the potential of the object to become important at some future time, even if it is currently considered of little value. Placing specimens in storage, then, does give them a life – a kind of parallel universe, away from the eye of the general public, yet still accessible for research, future display, etc. In my opinion, removing a specimen from display and placing it in storage does not diminish its importance – although we would all like to display as many specimens as possible.


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