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Depots, Storage and the “Loan Culture”:

Updated: Apr 30, 2018

How Blockbusters are Negatively Affecting the Carbon

Footprint of the Cultural Heritage Field.

Author : Caitlin Southwick

Image credit: bruynzeel storage

Museums have more objects than they can put on display. This global situation is one

reason that conservators spend so much time and energy discussing proper storage conditions for the 95% of a museum’s collection that will spend its life sitting on a depot shelf (Groskopf, C. QUARTZ, 2016). This trend has developed out of a desire to exhibit only the most prized, unique or attention-grabbing objects to draw in the public. Meanwhile the forgotten objects that most people will never see are hidden away, possibly only briefly leaving their home to pass through the hands of a conservator.

I find it a shame that there are so many beautiful pieces of art that no one will get to

enjoy. As a conservator, you get attached to the objects that you are privileged enough to get to work on and it is always a bit heart-breaking to send an object which you have spent so much time painstakingly caring for back to the depot to sit in the dark.

In the past, museums could display their entire collections, or would rotate their exhibits

to have new objects on display and draw in crowds. Today, with expanding collections, it is no longer possible to display all objects from a collection, and new marketing trends lean towards exhibitions which have a “wow” factor. Museums no longer turn to their own collection to fill voids or create new exhibitions, but instead bring in big ticket items that will attract large audiences. Blockbusters.

This “loan culture” ships priceless and popular objects around the world so that people

who could not otherwise travel to see these objects can enjoy them and museums can attract larger audiences. Big name items such as King Tut’s “Golden King and Great Pharohs Exhibition” make headlines, drawing crowds and boosting financial gains, fulfilling goals of museums and curators ( Sarah Cascone, Artnet News, 2017), (MFAH, 2011), (Jimmy Dunn, Tour Egypt, 2005). This trend not only keeps the storage objects firmly in the depot, but is also creating a vicious cycle of environmental strain.

More objects need larger storage facilities, and more global exhibitions which are

shipped all over the world have created the most unsustainable aspects of the cultural heritage field: packaging, shipping and storage. The incredible amount of waste produced by creating one-time- use packaging and crates, all of the energy and fuel used to ship objects all over the world and the extra energy museums have to consume to comply with strict environmental control regulations make loans one of the most carbon heavy activities of the museum and cultural heritage sector today.

The rest of the museums’ collection, in the meantime, are growing larger and larger as

more objects are acquired. These objects need to be put into storage if they are not going on display, requiring museums to build larger and larger storage facilities.

As more objects are put into collections, and fewer are actually put on display, it seems

that we have fallen into a vicious cycle. More energy is needed to protect more objects which will remain in storage while the top 5% of the art considered the most valuable gets shipped around the world. This is not a sustainable way to manage museums.

While this problem is recognized, it is difficult to find solutions that fit the needs of all

stakeholders. So, what do we do? Companies are beginning to invest in new, reusable multi-purpose crates. Museums have discussed coordinating deliveries to save fuel. Lighting and climate control issues are being discussed (Museums & Galleries Queensland, 2014). Museums are looking to build more sustainable storage facilities (British Museum, 2017). Preventative conservation is even going so far as to relax stringent control regulations to minimize HVAC usage or finding alternative solutions for climate control. But the problems still far outweigh the solutions. So, I ask: what is the price we are paying? Should we reconsider the loan culture?


https://qz.com/583354/why-is- so-much- of-the- worlds-great- art-in- storage/





https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/king-tut- 100th-anniversary- world-tour- 1164650

https://www.mfah.org/exhibitions/tutankhamun-golden- king-and- great-pharaohs/



Image: https://bruynzeel-storage.com/museum-storage/

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Sustainability in Conservation is an online network providing resources and information about environmentally responsible practices  in art conservation and related fields. Within a practice that produces so much waste, we hope to inspire collaboration and awareness to make cultural heritage a more sustainable profession. 

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