The myth and reality of working in Museum stores

Volunteering at Crawley Museum has given me the opportunity to peek behind the curtain of how a museum functions and what work goes into organising and storing exhibitions. I had a very romantic idea of how museums looked behind locked doors, and still do to some extent. Thanks to modern media, the images I had in my head of how museum stores looked were embarrassingly similar to that one scene from Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the scene you see boxes and boxes of artifacts stacked on top of one another in an old air force hanger. I am somewhat sad to report this is not the case for Crawley Museum stores, but it does make some of the jobs I do here easier.

Image of a statue of Aphrodite on display at the British Museum
Aphrodite, British Museum, taken by Blossom Whittle.

Before starting my volunteering work, I had plenty of experience visiting museums. Much of my knowledge was academic, from “this vase is based on this myth” and “did you know that this sculpting style was popular during this time”, but I couldn’t confidently tell you why a collection of items were displayed to the public in such a way without reading a plaque or pamphlet. At the time I was happy enough to goggle at the items in the cases and figure out if I could use them in an essay for the future. However, during my time studying for my Master’s degree, I was fortunate enough to become close friends with a girl who was studying Museum Studies. We often joked that she knew how to run the intricacies of a museum and visitor experiences no problem, but I was the one that could tell you in detail why statues of Aphrodite were carved in equal measures of modesty and nakedness depending on the angle you looked at her. It was long discussions with her over coffee and essay prep that opened my eyes to the sheer amount of thought and planning that went into a collection gallery. I knew to some extent that there was a lot of skill and work involved- but I knew nothing of the specifics and level of detail.

I wanted to start volunteering at a local museum because I wanted first-hand experience in all aspects of maintaining a museum and having a hand in the different departments involved. It also allowed me to contribute outside of my previous scope of work, as my area of specialty is Ancient Greek and Roman mythology, cult practice and art. From my perspective Crawley Museum is very modern and outside my area of study but through volunteering it has allowed me to learn about the town I had merely only travelled through on the train. Instead, I’ve seen that Crawley has a diverse community with a rich and expansive history.

I knew in theory what role a curator played but I didn’t really know what that meant until I saw it in the context of collections management. Working with Holly I have seen how she accepts certain items found by local residents, appraising them and chooses what objects would best fit in our galleries, and how she catalogues and stores the items in our museums database and decides if it’ll live in the store or out in a gallery.

During my few months here at the museum I’ve worked predominantly with disposals, which is a very frightening term for safely dealing with the items the Museum doesn’t have space for or need to keep any longer. The term disposals makes you think we’re chucking items in the bin, but I can assure you that the disposal objects in our stores are handled with care and respect. Some of these items go back to their original donors, others are passed on to other museums, schoolhouse experiences or the general public. Spring cleaning for the museum stores is really important to curate space and safe storage for the relevant items that make up Crawley’s history, and is great practice for cleaning my Nanas loft. I’ve really enjoyed my work with disposals as it’s an area of collections management I wasn’t aware of before and will only become more prevalent as time goes on.

Blossom Whittle

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