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How an idea becomes a gallery

Have you ever wondered how we put together a brand new gallery? Well, Sarah Watson from Collections Management tells us how.

This year the Horniman has been preparing for the opening of a new gallery which will show around 4,300 objects from our anthropology collection. The new World Gallery will redisplay a number of objects previously found in the Centenary and African Worlds Galleries, and importantly will include many more objects - some of which have never before been on display.

Once the World Gallery is open you will see inspiring and exciting objects from across the world highlighting different themes and cultures. Sounds enticing, doesn’t it? Before you rush to the Museum though there is still a lot of challenging work taking place behind the scenes in order for the doors of the World Gallery to open for the first time. 

Before any of the Museum's objects can be installed there needs to be decisions made about how they will be arranged and how these displays can be made possible physically. Considering how to arrange objects in a new exhibition is no easy task and one which our curators have been focused on for the last six or so years.

Some of these decisions are made at layouts when objects are set out in a mock-up of how a showcase might eventually look. Conservators, curators, collections management, documentation, and workshop staff all attend to discuss the practicalities and challenges of displaying particular objects. 

Prior to a layout, all of the required objects must be retrieved from the Horniman’s very own TARDIS - the Study Collections Centre (SCC) - our offsite storage facility which houses the majority of the museum’s collection.

Retrieving objects is carried out by the Collections Management Team who are responsible for the care, storage, and documentation of the collection. As part of this team, I work with my colleagues prior to each layout to identify the location of selected objects, collect them, and arrange them according to a design planned by curators. 

This process of retrieving objects from the SCC can be quite time-consuming, usually taking between one and four days depending on the number of objects needed and the complexity of moving them. One of the largest layouts we have done so far featured over two hundred objects. One of the challenges we encounter when retrieving objects is if they are heavy or large, or both, making them more difficult to move. This adds to the amount of preparation and time needed, and will often require the assistance of additional colleagues and lifting equipment to move them safely. 

So, what happens after the layout has finished I hear you ask. After the curators, conservators, and workshop staff have met and agreed on which objects can be displayed and how collections management carefully pack all the selected objects so they are ready to transport from the SCC to the Museum. Objects that haven’t been chosen will be packed away and go back into storage. As with retrieving objects, packing them also takes time, often as many as four days as we need to ensure that objects are packed as to not sustain damage while in transit. 

To get to the point where we start retrieving objects to the moment they are packed and ready to transport can take the best part of two weeks, particularly if there are a lot of objects involved. Once the layouts are complete we will begin the process of installing objects in the refurbished exhibition space for the World Gallery to open in 2018. In the meantime, we are getting very good at packing, and are delighted to see so many fascinating and unusual objects going on display from the collection.