At the Horniman Museum and Gardens, we are in the throes of our most ambitious project for years – a redisplay of our designated anthropology collections, involving the closure and redevelopment of two galleries to create a new World Gallery and The Studio.
That’s 1,300 museum objects going into storage and 3,000 coming out – sounds like no problem, right? But what about the 18 months in between while the new gallery is being constructed, when all 4,300 objects need housing in an already full-to-capacity storage facility? You might think that calls for a TARDIS…
In lieu of The Doctor's command of space and time, museums call on their collection management specialists to work their own brand of magic. Adrian Holloway is the Horniman’s Collections Manager, based at the Study Collections Centre, home to the Horniman’s stored collections.
When the Horniman started working on plans to redevelop the anthropology galleries, its Study Collections Centre (SCC) was already full, wasn't it?
It certainly looked that way. Perhaps there’s a perception that items currently on display have a designated space waiting for them to go back to. If yours is a museum that continues to collect, you’re unlikely to have this luxury – we certainly don’t at the Horniman. Space is money, we don’t waste either.
Is the SCC, in fact, a TARDIS?
We keep increasing the storage capacity, so in a way yes. I’ve overseen five storage projects at SCC since 2002, all to increase capacity within the limited space available. We’ve been able to do this by redesigning layouts of the rooms and updating old storage systems with modern mobile racking. We do have some external storage for larger items too – if we kept everything at SCC that’s not on display then there’d be no room to work, and we’d struggle to provide access to our collections for researchers and others, which is part of our ethos.
But this latest, major redisplay still posed a problem. What did you do to prepare?
The point at which the two ‘populations’ of objects meet – those coming off display, and those destined for the new World Gallery – is the challenge. We had a designated ‘project room’ at the SCC, which was conceived to allow us space to process objects in and out of the stored collection, whether for acquisitions, loans or new displays. But at the beginning of discussions about the new gallery, the room was overrun with Hart birds with nowhere else to go. We needed to make more space – essentially to return this room to its original purpose – to manage the demands of the redisplay affordably. The other option, to put everything coming off display into external storage, was far too expensive. Thankfully senior management and curators recognised our proposal was not only necessary to the anthropology redisplay project, but would also benefit the care of and access to the stored taxidermy collections.
How successful was the project in ‘creating’ space?
We were lucky to have exactly the right person focused on the project – Justine Aw, who was with us for a full year of decanting the collections (temporarily, into a previously upgraded store), room refurbishment, upgrading racking and then repacking and re-shelving nearly 2,000 specimens. This allowed us to free up 60-70m3 of space. The plan was to fit the entire taxidermy collection – including all those Hart bird cases – into one storage room. We weren’t 100% sure it was all going to fit until it did!
How many more objects will SCC contain after decanting the current anthropology displays? Are you sure that it will all fit?
We’re dealing with the movement of around 4,300 objects – 1,300 coming off display, more being acquired, and the rest leaving their stored location to be prepared for display in the World Gallery. We’re using external storage for a small number of larger items and new acquisitions – even so, at the moment I’m about 75% sure that everything else will fit in, with enough space left for us to work! As the objects are moving to the SCC in batches we have some opportunity to assess as we go and have a couple of other options to avoid grinding to a complete halt. The objects should also take up less space in storage than when in the packaging required for transport, which will be another factor in our favour.
So soon SCC really will be full. Is there a moratorium on new acquisitions?
It depends on how you define ‘full’. There’s still potential to improve capacity in future – I’ve got my eye on at least two more rooms – but that’s funding-dependent of course. Also, there are objects identified for disposal from our collection, following a series of collections reviews – but there’s work involved there in finding new homes for them that ideally keep them in the public domain.
So for now, yes, we’ll call it full. There’s no moratorium on acquisitions for the new World Gallery – the planned displays need some additions to tell their full stories. But for the other parts of our collection? Let’s just say we’re using greater caution…
Find out more about the anthropology redisplay.
Watch a timelapse film of objects being removed from display in what was the Centenary Gallery.
 Hampshire taxidermist and naturalist, Edward Hart (1847-1928). Hart's collection of mounted birds is one of the very best in Britain and most of the surviving taxidermy cases and notebooks are housed at the Horniman Museum and Gardens.