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The Importance Of Mobile Shelving In Museums

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Did you know that most museums have their most valuable fine art collections kept away from the public in storage? Almost half of every oil painting by Pablo Picasso is kept away in storage and not one single drawing by Egon Schiele can be found on display. 
Ever since museums and public galleries started becoming popular around the 17th century, they have amassed vast art collections from around the world so anyone can view incredible works of art. However, only a very small percentage of a museum's collection is put on display and available to the public. 


With so many priceless masterpieces hidden away in storage, this raises a few important questions. How do museums protect their valuable collections? What important role does their mobile shelving play? And why are most of their artworks kept hidden from the public? 

Safer in the vault

Firstly, museums obtain their art pieces either by having collections lent or donated to them from foundations, collectors and the artists themselves. Apart from various factors such as potential tax write-offs or vowing never to sell the artwork, many of these benefactors will often lend or donate to museums who can guarantee that their art collections will be properly conserved. 

Because of this, most of the art in a museum will spend its life safely stored in a vault or storage area rather than being on display to the public. When it comes to displaying their collections, it can widely vary between museums. 

For example, a survey conducted by Quartz in 2016 showed that the Art Institute of Chicago displayed around 66% of their collections. However, the Museum of Modern Art displayed only about 30% of their collections. 

Basically, it is much safer to have priceless works of art securely stored away for ensuring their continued preservation and survival. Although, museum storage areas and archives face their own set of challenges. 

The 10 agents of deterioration

Museums large or small, regardless if their collections are on display or in storage, are required to take effective measures to ensure that their priceless artefacts and artworks don’t succumb to the ‘10 agents of deterioration’. 

They are the ten biggest threats to a museum’s valuable inventory and they include:

  1.  Neglect

  2.  Water

  3.  Fire

  4.  Light

  5.  Pests

  6.  Theft

  7.  Humidity

  8.  Chemical deterioration

  9.  Temperature

  10.  Physical force

Something as simple as regulating temperature and humidity levels with hygrometers is a major focus for museums. Low humidity will create a dry atmosphere which will cause art pieces to dry out and crack. Whereas a high humidity will create moisture and cause mould growth and corrosion in metals.

Museums tend to ensure that their display and storage areas have a consistent humidity level of about 50% RH (Relative Humidity) and a temperature of around 21°C. A temperature as little as two degrees lower or higher can deteriorate material such as cloth, paper and fabric within a 24-hour period. 

So, what important role does mobile shelving play when it comes to protecting and storing these sensitive and priceless collections?

Careful handling of objects

Museum staff and curators take various steps to ensure delicate art pieces are handled with care, such as using vinyl gloves to eliminate the risk of oils released by their skin staining objects. However, there are many more threats when it comes to the careful handling of their inventory. 

Physical force is one of the major threats. This can come from visitors accidentally bumping objects when on display or from vibrations caused by staff when retrieving other art pieces in storage. This is why many museums store their sensitive inventory in mobile storage systems designed for bulky and heavier items (which can also vary in weight and size) that run along low profile tracks or tracks that are built into the floor. 

This ensures stable and smooth operation when staff are retrieving and storing objects. Each storage bay will easily glide along the tracks, eliminating the generation of harsh vibrations which can damage delicate art collections stored inside. 

Increased security

As theft is another major threat, museums have a high focus on ensuring that their priceless inventory is kept safe and secured when in storage from trespassers and even other members of staff. 

Leading storage system manufacturers offer advanced state-of-the-art storage systems which can be operated either manually or electronically. Electronic mobile storage systems have enhanced security features such as alarms and assigning access to authorised staff members to individual shelving bays, all without requiring physical keys for access. 

Through utilising advanced transponder technology, museums can keep track of who is accessing what and ensure that each priceless artefact and art piece is stored safely and securely. 

In summary

Depending on the type of museum, such as war museums, science museums or natural history museums, the requirements for storing particular items can differentiate between one another. 
For ensuring that they are always in the best position to protect their masterpieces against the 10 agents of deterioration, museums turn to established storage system manufacturers for effective and intelligent mobile shelving solutions.

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