The Natural History Museum's Darwin Centre allows public access to thousands of previously hidden specimens. © The Natural History Museum, London.
The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) has welcomed a Museums Association (MA) report which calls for institutions to realise the full potential of their often unseen collections.
Entitled Collections for the Future the report was published on June 14 2005 and follows an 18-month enquiry by the MA into the condition and use of the UK‘s museum collections.
Over 500 organisations and individuals were consulted and the result is a comprehensive document examining a range of issues from access and acquisition to dispersal and disposal.
According to Jane Glaister, chair of the report steering committee, "too many museum collections are under used – not displayed, published, used for research or even understood by the institutions that care for them."
An independent membership organisation, the MA represents the majority of museums in the UK and works to support their interests as well as advocate professional development and ethical standards in the sector.
While highlighting the need to place collections higher on museum agendas, its report recognises the difficulties faced by staff in looking after the vast numbers of objects in their care.
It also looks at potential solutions from open stores to a national collection to be used by all museums. Crucially, it underlines the need to engage more people, make collections more widely available and tackles the difficult subject of disposal.
For Mark Wood, chair of MLA, the report is "a timely and challenging analysis," and offers an opportunity for museum organisations to work together to improve existing collections and future acquisitions.
The Madonna of the Pinks, now owned by the National Gallery in London, has been touring the country visiting institutions in Manchester, Cardiff, Edinburgh and the north east. © The National Gallery, London.
"The UK has some of the finest museum collections in the world and people should be given every opportunity and encouragement to enjoy them," he said. "We need to get objects out of storage and on display."
The report puts forward a number of examples where museums have done just that. Glasgow Museums Resource Centre is one such example. Opened in 2003, this open store gives the public a chance to view objects that would otherwise have been hidden away due to lack of display space in the city’s museums and galleries.
A long-running loan service from the Museum of Reading, which sends themed boxes of artefacts to schools, is also highlighted for its capacity to reach new audiences.
Mark Wood supports the notion of loaning and sharing collections and pointed out that initiatives such as MLA’s Renaissance in the Regions help create greater and improved access.
The British Museum's Compass tool offers an online trawl through 5,000 objects from the institution's collection.
"We want to make more opportunities for people to enjoy major exhibitions and national collections wherever they are and will continue to liaise between national and regional museums to achieve this," he said.
One way to do it, he added, is by making more use of technology: "Digitisation also has an important part to play in opening up museum collections to more people," he said, "and MLA is leading the drive for online access."
His words were echoed by 24 Hour Museum Editor Jon Pratty: "Objects and collections are what museums are all about and the web is a great way to extend access to collections to an even bigger audience," he explained.
"Online exhibitions can be seen, examined and studied by anyone at any time, so what we want to see more of are museums and galleries dusting off and digitising their collections so they can be enjoyed by everyone."
The Macclesfield Psalter, c.1320, was saved for the nation by the Art Fund for display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Courtesy Sotheby's.
Speaking at a public debate held earlier this year as part of Museums and Galleries Month, MA Deputy Director Maurice Davies pre-empted the reports findings: "Museums have to do more to expand the opportunities open to people to engage with collections," he said.
Recalling a previous job at a museum in Manchester he added: "We had rooms and rooms and rooms full of very good, but not brilliant, works of art. We had thousands of things worth millions of pounds that were never looked at." His solution: "If care, access or context will be improved by doing so, then a collection should be moved to another museum."
He went even further by suggesting that even if it resulted in damage or deterioration, objects could go out into the public arena to hospitals or schools: "They would suffer, but much better that they be enjoyed by people."
More information about Collections for the Future can be found on the Museums Association website.