“Good storage is preventive conservation.”
When you think of museum storage, what do you think of? Do you think of the giant storage spaces seen in the classic Night of the Museum movies? Or maybe you visualize a super secret and massive facility akin to an Indiana Jones movie. The reality is usually far less cinematic (especially in smaller museum institutions) but, when done correctly, it is much more effective at keeping museum collections safe!
Most museums generally only have anywhere from 40-60% of their collections on display. With that in mind, it makes sense that the rest of the objects need to be safely kept somewhere!
The better stored an object is, the more protected and less conservation it’s going to need in the long run. Objects may be put into storage for a variety of reasons:
- Items may be fragile and sensitive materials (that need a controlled environment), damaged, copies, or have questionable provenance.
- Consistently acquiring new items but only have so much room to display.
- Items could be too large or unwieldy to display.
James Madison’s Montpelier’s Fine and Decorative Arts Collection has a current total of 4,233 objects within it. Out of that, only 2,552 objects are on display; leaving 1,684 items within storage (that’s about 40% of our collections off display!). While the collections in storage are not on display for the general public, that does not make them any less important to care for.
Images of the Montpelier’s storage and shelving.
The Importance of Storage
Have you heard of the saying “out of sight, out of mind”? Objects often left within storage may be there for quite a long time. And, on top of this, objects in storage are just as susceptible to the same elements of deterioration as those on display– possibly even more so. The collections department must keep a close eye on storage in order to prevent the worst case scenario of damage and loss of an object. These objects must be properly stored and consistently monitored to reduce the risks of deterioration, damage, or loss. Careful consideration goes into their storage location and the way in which they are stored.
Another way of avoiding forgotten objects is to do an inventory of objects at least every 3 to 5 years– Montpelier does one every 5 years! Check out our blog post on our 2020 Inventory to learn more.
Causes of Deterioration
These factors must be consistently monitored in order to keep storage spaces and their objects safe. This is done via data monitoring devices, checks by our museum technicians, frequent cleaning of the space, and monthly pest inspections. To secure our storage spaces and protect against fire damage, we employ sophisticated systems that give us the extra layer of monitoring.
Types of Storage
When it comes to museum collections, areas dedicated to storage vary from institution to institution. Some institutions have one (or more!) dedicated storage facility. Other institutions, like Montpelier, utilize storage wherever appropriate space can be made. Sometimes, additional storage spaces may be needed for specific exhibits. Many art museums that have several rotating special exhibitions throughout the year may have a dedicated storage space as a part of the special exhibition space– to make rotating exhibits easier. Here at Montpelier, we have a mixed approach to storage. We have multi-use spaces in our office building, a building that serves as our permanent storage facility, and a few other spaces that we utilize for storage when needed. Depending on what the storage need is for the object(s) might determine which storage space it will reside in. Objects have two different ways of being stored; they can either be packed for long-term storage or be temporarily stored. Our storage building houses our long-term storage whereas our office’s storage location houses temporary storage.
Long-Term storage is the primary form of storage for objects not on display. These are items that:
- May not have space to display.
- Are copies of or similar to the objects we already have on display.
- Need a rest from being on display.
- Are too sensitive or fragile to be placed on display.
Items put into long-term storage are packed away much more securely as they will not be touched or viewed for quite some time. They are still easily accessible, they just take a bit more time to open and put away.
Temporary storage is exactly as it sounds: temporarily storing objects elsewhere. It is used in cases where objects:
- May need conservation for cleaning or damage.
- Are being researched/viewed and need to be looked at.
- Are being moved within the spaces they reside.
- (In some extreme cases) being removed from their current location and placed in a safer place due to an emergency within their original location.
Temporary storage items are not as tightly packed or sealed, as they may need to be opened and viewed frequently. They are still carefully wrapped to prevent damage while in transit.
Things to Consider
The 7 S’s are factors that help to determine how an object is stored properly. These are size/shape, support, surface, sensitivity (cultural), acceSs, special environment, and stability.
The size, shape, and orientation must be taken into account in order to properly store an object. This helps to determine the proper adjustments and packaging needed to fit the object and its container onto existing storage shelving.
- Does it need a big box or a smaller box?
- Can other items fit into the same box?
- Is it too heavy to be put on top of other items or is it light enough to be placed atop another object?
- Where will it safely fit on a shelving unit?
The object’s rigidity, shaping, and vibration must be considered in order to add the right support into the container.
- Does it need foam inserts to prevent the object from shaking too much?
- If the container is going to hold multiple objects, does it need spacers between the objects?
This pertains to the object’s surface and material it is made out of. This can also play into the shape of an object. Something like a book that has a flat surface can easily be stacked atop other books. But an object like a table or a teapot has various sizes and pieces on its surface that require more thought into how the object is packed and placed in storage areas. Or something like a picture frame cannot lie flat against another object as it often has a raised surface.
- Does it have a smooth surface with little to no additional pieces?
- Does it have a rough surface with additionally attached pieces that need to be carefully handled and packed (i.e. a handle, legs, or a lid)?
Images of a 4 1829 volumes of ‘Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies, from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson’ (MF2015.22.1a-d), an American Sheraton style dining table (MF2014.86.1a-c), and a glazed creamware teapot (MF2015.63.1a-b) within the Montpelier Collection to showcase variation in surface types.
One must carefully consider what is culturally appropriate storage for the object in question. This takes research, investigation, and consultation. It may change decisions about storage, isolation, and access needs.
- What culture does the object belong to?
- Does this object have specific cultural needs in regards to storage?
An object should have some ease of visible access to reduce handling. In some instances, an object may be pulled for viewing to, say, be researched.
- Is the object easily accessible?
This is for objects with unique situations that require a more specific type of environment. Many potential reasons call to create a special environment:
- To control humidity
- To control oxygen
- To protect the object from outside pollutants
- To contain hazardous materials
- To isolate the object in order to protect other objects
- To absorb products being generated by the collection object
- To increase air circulation
The materials used to store objects should be carefully considered as commercial materials could be risky. Some commercial materials can contain substances or harsh surfaces that can actually be harmful to objects. Consideration of this varies depending on the material the object is made of.
- What materials are recommended for the object you are storing?
- Is the material acid-free?
- Does your object need a sturdy material or something a little more flexible?
There are various materials that aid in storing the collections. These are used to hold objects, pad them, or are used as a buffer against other materials. They come in various materials, but a commonality between them all is that they protect the object from outside deterioration.
Materials Commonly Used
These are most commonly used to buffer, divide, and protect the surface of objects. The thicker materials are used to create stability and support for objects, and maybe even to mount objects.
- Tissue paper (acid free buffered tissue paper)
- Archival paper
- Photocopy paper (labeled as acid free)
- Folder stock (acid free)
- Paper board: (acid free/ lignin free)
- MatBoard (2- and 4-Ply)
- Corrugated paper board (archival boxes)
Like their paper counterpart, these can be used to buffer objects surfaces and thicker materials to support. Softer plastics like foam sheeting and bubble wrap are used to pad materials so that they are less likely to break.
- Corrugated plastic board
- Paper faced laminated panel board
- Polyester film (mylar/melinex)
- Polyester sheeting
- Polyethylene/polypropylene sheeting and foam sheeting
- Bubble wrap
These are commonly used as a buffer from work surfaces while in the process of packing objects for storage. Twill tape can be used to tie objects (like papers or rolls of textiles) together, as a reinforcement or as a label for textiles.
- White/unbleached cotton sheets
- Fabric or twill tape (cotton or cotton/polyester blend)
- Packing blankets
Different Storage Methods Based on Material/Medium of Object
Proper storage depends on the type of material you are trying to store. (i.e. textiles, paperworks and books, paintings, furniture, decorative arts [ceramics, glass, metals, stone, wood, etc.])
Let’s walk through two different object types:
Textiles in museum collections are one of the most sensitive materials to preserve. When it comes to storing fabric objects like ribbons, potential damage can include creasing, distortion, brittleness, breakage, flaking, tears, cuts, holes, losses, pest damage, mold, discoloration, fading, yellowing, splits, and staining. Some of the deterioration can come from the properties of the fibers themselves: The materials added onto the fabric can cause further damage (heavy beads, rusted pins, etc.) Synthetic fibers are chemically unstable and accelerate deterioration. Manufacturing processes also cause harm to fabrics and weaken them in the long run (tin-weighted silks, iron salts in black dyes, etc.).
- Archival box
- Archival box trays
- Acid free tissue
- Archival acid free paper (for label inserts)
These objects are very fragile and are susceptible to tearing, flaking, becoming brittle, water damage, mold infestations, and pest infestations. The best way to address these is to make sure they are stored in a manner that allows for air circulation (to avoid mold).
- Archival boxes
- Acid free tissue paper
- Bubble wrap
- Polystyrene foam sheets
Keeping Track of Storage (LOCATION)
Finally, there is more to storage than just packing the items away. With such a large number of objects in collections, we have to keep tabs on where they’re going so we don’t lose track of them! This is where accession numbers play a key role (read more about accession numbers here!). These numbers help to keep track of objects. The collections department must update the collections database to reflect the current location of the objects. This is especially important if objects are moving locations.
Photo of Montpelier’s Collection Database showcasing object numbers, name, and their location recorded digitally.
Organization of the objects within storage is also very important. While it is important to place objects to best fit, they should also be placed in a particular order. At Montpelier, their order is based upon which collection they belong to (the Permanent Collection, the Study Collection, the National Trust Collection, the Loan Collection, or the Prop Collection) and is in order of their accession number. Everything must be clearly labeled; both on the objects and on the boxes in which they reside. This just means making sure the accession numbers are easily viewable.
Photo of boxes on one shelf in Montpelier’s storage and a close-up shot of the accession numbers labels on the boxes.
To Wrap Up
Just like the collections care we provide for all the collections on display, understanding and implementing preventative conservation is just as important for the collections off display. Proper storage is another tool in the arsenal of preventative conservation measures that we utilize here at Montpelier in Orange County, Virginia!
Alexis Atkinson, BA
Alexis joined the Curatorial and Collections department in November of 2022. She maintains and preserves the decorative arts collections on display throughout the property. She also assists the Collections Manager with research, collections projects, and the collections’ social media accounts. Alexis earned her B.A. in Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University in May of 2022.