Page last updated at 10:07 GMT, Thursday, 8 July 2010 11:07 UK

Museums part with the past in collections revamp

Leicester and Horsham museum's curators debate disposing of artefacts

For decades museums around the UK have been adding to their collections and putting disused exhibits in to storage. But now they are running out of storage space and some are having to take drastic action, as Madeleine Holt discovered.

It has never been easy for museums to find space for their expanding collections.

An increasing number of artefacts have gone into storage over the years and now around 90% of collections are not on public view, with millions of items unlikely to ever see the light of day again.

The trouble is museum folk are often self-confessed hoarders and getting rid of stuff is antithetical to their whole mindset.

But one man is a pioneer of "disposal" - selling and getting rid of unwanted items held by museums.

Jeremy Knight is curator of Horsham Museum in Sussex. Over the past 20 years he has overseen the selling of items in order to revitalise and expand the collection on display.


Stuffed bird collections, old farming equipment and paintings by artists with no connection to Horsham or Sussex have gone in order to fund displays with more local relevance.

Display shelves
Old artefacts that are never seen can raise funds to open new galleries

"Shelley is the most important person born in Horsham and we had nothing on him when I first came," he explained.

"By disposing of items that were irrelevant we've managed to build up one of the largest collections on Shelley in the country, which is used internationally by scholars and by local schoolchildren."

But Mr Knight's clutter-busting spirit has not been so readily embraced elsewhere.

In Leicester, he visited one of the city's five huge storage facilities which service seven museums. Leicester has signed up to a process of getting rid of some of its items - but, with two million pieces in storage, it has so far only tackled the tip of the iceberg.

It took 150 years for Leicester to build up its collection - and curators believe it could take another 100 years to get rid of all the things they do not need.

I take the view that objects have to work and earn their living by making them relevant to the people and showing the people the past through those objects
Jeremy Knight, curator Horsham Museum

But unlike Horsham, Leicester has ample storage space. It does beg the question - why sell the collections if you have room for them?

"It is all very well keeping it in store, but is it a realistic expectation - and sustainable in the current climate of environmental issues - to actually heat and light this sort of building which costs a fortune?" Mr Knight said.

"And for what? For items which no-one is ever going to look at."

Of course there is always the danger of throwing something out and regretting it afterwards.

"I think you do need to have a very good reason for getting rid of things," said Jane May, a curator for Leicester Museums Service.

"I have so often looked at museum records and we got rid of things in the past that I would kill to have now."

New stories

Selling artefacts to raise funds can also prove controversial. Southampton City Council has put on hold plans to sell a Rodin sculpture to fund a museum about the Titanic, after an outcry both on its own doorstep and within the art world.

Rodin sculpture
Plans in Southampton to sell this Rodin sculpture have been put on hold

Maurice Davies of the Museums Association said fears over public reaction to disposal can hold some museums back.

"Museums have been quite frightened of disposal and of the reaction to it - both from other museums and from the public and media more widely.

"But I think the lesson is really that the more open you are and the more transparent the better it is."

Jeremy Knight said his programme was paying dividends in many ways, with six new galleries created from old store rooms.

"By creating new galleries we create new stories.

"We get more public in, they get more involved in the past and they get more excited about it - that's part of our job.

"I take the view that objects have to work and earn their living by making them relevant to the people and showing the people the past through those objects."

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