These New York Museums Let Visitors Go behind the Scenes to Explore Their Brimming Storage Facilities
Though space constraints may not come to mind when walking through the Met’s multi-block span or the Brooklyn Museum’s patchwork of galleries, most museums share a fundamental problem: Their collections are far too big for their buildings to accommodate. Their galleries can often display only a small percentage of the objects they hold. As Kevin Stayton, Chief Curator at the Brooklyn Museum, puts it, “The museum is always looking everywhere for storage. We have so much material and so little space.”
In some museums, this problem has generated a different kind of viewing experience—in spaces created to serve the dual purposes of storage and display. Called study galleries or visible storage centers, these repositories are crowded with a wealth of objects that would otherwise remain largely out of sight, making them feel like treasure chests or cabinets of curiosities. New York City is home to three museums with these offerings—the Met, the Brooklyn Museum, and the New-York Historical Society—allowing for less directed viewing experiences and enabling visitors to make their own discoveries.
The Met was the first of these museums to establish visible storage facilities, which are currently incorporated into its American, Egyptian, and Greek and Roman wings. Nestled interstitially into its main galleries, the Egyptian wing’s open-storage facilities were established as part of a wholesale overhaul of that area of the museum begun in the 1970s, a nine-year process unveiled to the public in 1983. Egyptian art curator Catharine Roehrig explains that their principal function is utilitarian. Thanks to these spaces, “close to everything we have is on display,” she says, making conserving and tracking the vast collection much easier. But while the public’s interest may not have been a primary consideration, people have embraced the galleries. “I’ve been told that the curators were surprised by the number of people who wandered into the study galleries. Everybody assumed people would just go through the main galleries,” she says.
With shelves bristling with all kinds of objects—from fragments of gorgeously colored glass vessels to rows of intricately adorned coffins—it is no wonder that the open-storage spaces became such a draw. Roehrig points to a particularly eye-catching piece, a painting on a small fragment of leather, showing a man with an exaggerated phallus placed backwards on his body and directed at a woman seated behind him. Considered a bit too risqué for the main galleries, this object is better suited tucked away in visible storage. “We put it in here so it’s not right in front of somebody’s face,” says Roehrig. “We have a huge number of kids coming through, so let’s not give them any more to talk about, especially the teenagers.”
Opened in 2005, the Brooklyn Museum’s Visible Storage Study Center (a part of the museum’s Luce Center for American Art) was created to be what Stayton describes as an “adjunct” to the reconceived American art galleries, “so that side-by-side we have the highly curated and interpreted ‘American Identities’ galleries, and then the open storage.” While the center does not come close to solving the museum’s lack of display space—showcasing only a couple thousand of the tens of thousands of objects in the American art collections—Stayton explains that it provides a sense of “the great depth and richness of the museum’s collection and a fascinating, exciting peek into what’s behind the scenes.”
The center’s mission is visitor-centric. It’s structured to encourage learning and exploration through periodic mini-exhibitions, supplemental resources that decode some of the ways the museum collects and catalogs, and, especially, through its wonderful crush of objects. “By massing things together, you learn things just from the sheer quantity, which you don’t learn when you look at one or two of the very best examples,” as in traditionally curated exhibitions, says Stayton. This is illustrated by one of his favorite sections, a floor-to-ceiling case holding Spanish colonial objects. “You look at the silver, these religious objects, and it really gives you a sense of how different colonial Mexico and Peru were from North America,” he explains. “It shows you the pervasive influence of the Catholic Church, the great wealth of that area, and the strong influence from the indigenous communities, which is much less apparent in colonial Boston and New York.”
Similar to the Brooklyn Museum’s center, the New-York Historical Society’s Luce Center open-storage facilities, which opened in 2000, showcased its American art collections with a visitor-minded, educational focus. It also served as de facto permanent-collection galleries, for which New-York Historical Society does not have the space. The problem was that visitors didn’t come, as museum director Margi Hofer explains. “We are really audience-driven, and it was very difficult to get our visitors up to the fourth floor,” she says. “Most visitors are coming to see a changing exhibition. They might go see one, two, or even three shows, and then they’ve had a full experience. So we weren’t really successful in making it a destination experience.”
New-York Historical Society is in the process of making their storage facilities a destination. It is currently closed and undergoing a complete transformation, slated to re-open in 2017. While some of its densely filled visible storage cases will be retained, the reimagined center will feature what Hofer describes as “thematic and narrative-driven installations,” resembling curated exhibitions. Among these will be the Tiffany Gallery, which will capitalize on the institution’s collection of lamps by renowned designer Louis Comfort Tiffany—many of which, recent historical research has uncovered, were actually produced by designer Clara Driscoll and other women who worked in his studio. “We have an extremely talented architect working on this project,” says Hofer. “The Tiffany Gallery will be 3,000 square feet and will feature 100 lamps, all lit. It will be a very memorable space.”
But aside from their delightful abundance and the logistical issues they can help to ease, visible-storage spaces demonstrate an important and relatively newer ethos, which Stayton sums up. “Museum collections are publicly owned; they’re part of our heritage. They need to be seen. And the more you can get out, the better.”