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Oxford, 16 May 2017

Having been on the CCG calendar for almost a year and following a ticket sell-out so rapid that it set the bar at a new high for bookings, forty-five delegates gathered in the impressive Blackwell Hall at the Bodleian’s Weston Library to enjoy the Oxford Storage Study Day. The format was a morning of brief presentations from representatives of four of the main central university institutions, each with recent experience of storage changes, and then an afternoon of visits to three of the venues to contextualise what we had learned in the morning sessions.

Stacks of space

The first speaker was Alexandra Walker, Preventive Conservator at the Bodleian Libraries. Alex started with a brief history of the changing nature of the Bodleian on the site that is now occupied by the Weston Library. The collection growth in the previous New Bodleian building rapidly exceeded available space and by the time the library closed in 2012 for the £80m redevelopment it was over its maximum capacity by 30%. Keeping only the facades, the building was essentially hollowed out and Alex showed the enormity of this undertaking through a time lapse video of the project’s progress.

She went on to highlight the collections care features of the Weston, including cleverly specified roller racking to fit within the complicated architecture of the building. Specialist collections care areas are available for the first time, with a quarantine room and cold store, both of which have housed the recently acquired Fox Talbot Archive. Alex detailed the environmental controls in the Weston, from the mitigation strategies employed to counter the inevitable high humidity during the drying out period to a slide showing enviable flat-line data for one stack area. The future aim is to gain even greater sustainability for achieving these impressive results whilst reducing the environmental impact of the storage.

‘After it all seemed carefully housed’

Daniel Bone, Head of Conservation at the Ashmolean Museum, was the second of our speakers. Daniel was part of the conservation team that oversaw the whole collection decant in preparation for the total redevelopment of the museum between 2006 and 2009. Focusing on how the storage and status of museum collections has changed over time, Daniel showed how an original concept, cases with extensive storage below, had been adapted to provide a more visitor-focused display philosophy and an opportunity for visitors to interact more actively with the collection. The museum’s teaching function is central to this philosophy, with study rooms having direct access to storage areas.

Daniel completed his presentation with an engaging case study of how a discrete collection’s status is reflected in its storage provision, and the impact this can have on its treatment and care. The changing fortunes of Francis Chantrey’s original plaster models from high to low status objects within the collection, and their subsequent revival to be displayed proudly once more in the main Ashmolean atrium space, was a very clear illustration of Michael Thompson’s Rubbish Theory. This was reinforced further by the charming, but unsuitable, original housing materials currently on display in the Conservation galleries, showing how storage itself has become part of the collection and teaching offer of the museum.

Sharp, pointy and poisonous

Our third speaker, Andrew Hughes, Pitt Rivers Move Project Team Leader, provided a perspective on a current storage project to quantify, describe, pack and move the 120,000 objects in the museum’s off-site store. The diversity of the collection is remarkable, with the irregular and outsize item formats and inherent hazards in an ethnographic store being intensified by a severe lack of space. The difficulties of the collection and the site are further compounded by uncertainty as to the length

of time the items will remain in storage once moved. A housing approach for long term storage using two standard box footprints has been adopted but with packing designed to allow ease of access to items.

The project has enabled the fourteen-strong team to improve the documentation for the collection to include basic information such as materials and hazards identification and an image of each item. A simple but smart box labelling system has been developed to allow instant identification of not only the risks that the collection poses to users but also the vulnerability of the collection to external factors, such as pests. The importance of this information was made chillingly clear with Andrew’s last slide of a man-trap stored open on an upper shelf; the room gasped in horror and sympathy.

Collections care in a cathedral to science

The final speaker for the morning was Zoë Simmons, Curatorial Officer for Life Collections at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH). Zoë’s focus was on the restrictions historical buildings place upon housing and display, and how conservators at the museum have to ensure a high level of collections care in listed spaces. This was illustrated by the need to box outsize objects to remain in situ during the 2013 extensive roof repairs, and how conservation accommodates the historic Swift colony nesting in spaces adjacent to an entomological collection containing approximately 5.5 million specimens.

The lack of uniformity in the original collections’ storage and display methods and the inflexibility of the linear accessioning model have resulted in some intelligent use of sealing and boxing as well as collections amalgamation to maximise available space. The gradual replacement of old specimen cabinets, new accessioning protocols to reduce the risk of pest introduction and the replacement of non-standard packaging have all contributed to the increased level of storage management in these important but fragile collections.

The afternoon tours provided delegates with the opportunity to see first hand some of the issues raised in the morning session. Highlights included the impressive Huxley Room at OUMNH, which houses the majority of the insect specimen collection in original cabinets below the vaulted roof space of the museum. For anyone who had seen the previous stack areas at the Bodleian, the improvement created by the redevelopment of the site was remarkable, with flexible, highly specified and equipped storage and specialist processing areas. With storage space always at a premium the tour of the Ashmolean Museum’s Eastern Art Organic Store demonstrated how a diverse collection can be stored effectively by using configurable racking which can be adapted for different types, formats and sizes of material.

The committee would like to thank Conservation and Collections Care at the Bodleian for hosting the day, and to all speakers and tour leaders for providing such a comprehensive and candid insight into the storage of their collections.

Victoria Stevens ACR