Show Summary Details
Page of

Subscriber: null; date: 21 September 2023

p. 12711 Realities of Storage, Dispersal, and Displaylocked

p. 12711 Realities of Storage, Dispersal, and Displaylocked

  • Maxwell L. Anderson
  • Top of page

What happens once antiquities are excavated?

Once removed from an excavated trench or the ocean bottom, legally obtained antiquities are today typically dispatched to a storage facility, either at the excavation site or in a neighboring city museum. The speed with which they are transferred from findspot to storage varies based on available personnel and resources, the fragility or instability of specific finds, and competing priorities related to the excavation. Objects are especially vulnerable once excavated or brought to the ocean surface, since they are not fully documented, and are subject to deterioration because of fluctuations in humidity, temperature, and exposure to airborne pollutants. They are also subject to theft.

After being recorded, photographed, and placed in storage, objects may be set aside and languish for months or years unless they are deemed significant enough for further examination. If their storage location is already filled to capacity, which is not an uncommon situation, they may be subjected to less than ideal circumstances, sometimes being stacked, placed deep in shelves, or even on floor surfaces. Better equipped facilities will accord them ample space and security and ensure that they are thoroughly examined and documented.

p. 128Illegally obtained antiquities are rarely provided the care and consideration typical of legally excavated examples. They are often packed hurriedly and carelessly, resulting in damage to their surface or to their structural integrity, and may be lost or destroyed during their transport to a location beyond the reach of the authorities.1 The disregard for their findspot or context results in the loss of the kind of information that routinely accompanies legally excavated antiquities.

  • Top of page

What are the contents and state of modern museum storerooms?

The museum world’s storerooms have conditions as variable as those found in any other kind of real estate. They range from the most modest of unsecured spaces lacking climate control, to state-of-the-art vaults and facilities including interior cabinets with microclimates for objects made of organic materials. Museums containing archaeological finds from nearby excavations are normally under great pressure to accommodate discoveries as they are made, which compounds the challenge of caring for and documenting unpublished objects already in their care.2 The result is not infrequently a traffic jam of objects, with properly documented works moved aside to make room for fresh arrivals.

Collecting institutions that acquire works not through excavation but through gift and purchase are far better equipped to receive new objects. These market nation institutions are typically European or North American museums with ample resources, and their storerooms are climate-controlled, carefully supervised, and secure.

  • Top of page

p. 129How well documented are artifacts in museum galleries and storerooms?

The degree to which an object is documented also varies widely. Awarding each newly obtained artifact a reference number, or accession number, is a normal first step. That number is normally painted on the least obtrusive part of its surface, on top of a reversible (removable) sealant. From that point on the work is typically photographed, measured, and identified, with these details recorded in a museum’s database. For most objects in museum collections, that may be the full extent of the digital record. For others considered more noteworthy, documentation may include a detailed description; information about its provenance, publication, and exhibition history, if known; and a full accounting of any conservation treatment, such as chemical analysis, and x-ray or infrared examination.

Works on display have typically undergone more extensive review and documentation than those that have never been exhibited, the latter category accounting for the vast majority of the holdings of museums.3 The tedious work of documentation may demand dozens of person-hours per object, which explains why so little of the cultural heritage in museums is accessible in print publications, let alone in online digital databases. The typical prompt to create a more complete record is as a result of a request from a peer institution or renowned scholar to examine, exhibit, or publish a given work. If undocumented objects remain in storerooms, the passage of time can contribute to neglect of their condition as well as their origins, p. 130which is when they become vulnerable to theft or careless handling and resulting damage.4

  • Top of page

What will happen to stored works in the long term?

As noted above, once in storage, the path out of the basement is far from assured. With most of the world’s cultural heritage still unexcavated, the fate of objects in storage is far from certain. Within particular categories of antiquities, certain museums may have dozens or even hundreds of similar examples, resulting in their likely permanence in storage.

This is hardly cause for alarm. Drawing an analogy to libraries, no one should be penalized if a given book stays on a shelf unconsulted for decades. The purpose of a library is not to ensure that every book circulates frequently—it is to compile a comprehensive collection, with holdings of books, periodicals, and serials that will be available if and when a scholar, student, or member of the public seeks to consult it. The episodic hue and cry about the percentage of museum collections not on display misses the point of museums.5 Museums are research institutions, like libraries, that exist to care for collections. The public benefit is not only realized by means of display. The costly, complex obligation to care for cultural heritage is a public good in and of itself, and should not be misunderstood to p. 131stem from an impulse to hoard or from the inability to decline donations of excavated or market-sourced materials. If not destined for museums, these works would likely end up on the legal or illicit market, likely yielding neither a scholarly record nor a public benefit.

  • Top of page

How easily do artifacts circulate for exhibitions, long-term loans, and collection sharing?

Many art world observers exhort museums to liberate artworks from storage. While the circulation of antiquities can have positive results, it is also expensive, time-consuming, and distracting from the other multiple obligations of museum personnel. Which is not to say that circulating works is not a good idea, simply that each potential loan has to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Museum directors overseeing significant collections find themselves forced to decline the majority of loan requests, for various reasons. The intellectual premise of a loan exhibition may be felt to be of negligible research value, or the presumed display conditions might invite outright physical risk to the object and its lending institution. The works requested for loan may be judged too integral to the museum’s identity and current displays to be away from view for several months. Or the would-be lender lacks the resources necessary to prepare the works for display, travel, and publication.

In my experience, objects are no more likely to be damaged when in circulation than when back home at their museum. Michelangelo’s marble statue group the Pietà famously traveled to the 1964 New York World’s Fair without incident, only to be vandalized back at the Vatican eight years later.6 Antiquities slated for display are routinely accorded special treatment in advance, and that can include the possible p. 132discovery of ‘inherent vice’ such as infestation or bronze disease that can be interrupted and addressed. Other potential benefits can result from reintegration of old damages, consolidation of the object’s surface, and new mounts that are more stable and trustworthy than their original mounts. The careful handling of works slated for display rarely results in damage while packing, and the technology of crating and shipping artworks has greatly improved over the last generation, to the point that the chances of misfortune are minimal.

By contrast, objects that are not accorded the attention of works in circulation may suffer in silence, unseen on the back of a shelf, with corrosion triggered by excessive humidity, staining from leaky pipes above, animal droppings saturating their surface, or any of a number of other threats familiar to people with heirlooms long neglected in attics and basements.

  • Top of page

How common are long-term loans or collection sharing?

Many museums with significant stored collections are amenable to extending long-term loans. These can be extensive, with dozens or more works spending several years at smaller museums. The presumed value of such loans is obvious: these tend to be objects that would otherwise remain in storage, but are instead made available to a broad public in a location or institution unable to provide access to relevant examples of cultural heritage. The costs attendant to long-term loans are absorbed over years instead of weeks, and benefits to the borrowing institution are incalculable, starting with the implied savings of not needing to purchase comparable works were they available on the legal market—an increasingly unlikely scenario in any event.

Long-term loans demand a great deal from both lending and borrowing institutions, beginning with mutual trust, a perceived benefit to both museums, and the costs of preparing, packing, shipping, installing, and offering educational programs and publications connected with them. The numbers of p. 133such loans are accordingly finite, even for the largest of institutional lenders, and demand continuous vigilance from both lender and borrower, as well as increased insurance, security, and management costs. That said, they can be transformative for the borrowing institution, and typically yield new research on works that might otherwise remain out of circulation. There is no organized reward to encourage such loans, and therefore they tend to be arranged as a function of an entrepreneurial director at the borrowing end, and an open-minded director at the lending end. With so much of the world’s cultural heritage in storage, and a sharp decline in the number of antiquities available for sale in the legal market, long-term loans could become the best way for archaeological and collecting institutions to share both the burden and the gift of caring for our collective heritage.7

Collection sharing offers a variant of long-term loans, implying that museums have joint ownership of works. This entails a more complicated set of concerns, since while loan agreements tend to be straightforward, shared ownership demands agreement on the exercise of intellectual property rights, and the right to conserve, display, lend, sell, and otherwise dispose of jointly owned works. Collection sharing can be an encumbrance over the long haul, since elements of an agreement that once seemed reasonable can become fraught over time, given changes in leadership, attitudes, and external circumstances.

  • Top of page

How have displays of antiquities changed over time?

Grainy photographs of nineteenth-century museum galleries filled with antiquities reveal a consistent display technique. Long wood-framed cases with glass tops and sides allowed p. 134for hundreds or thousands of objects to be lined up as if in a department store, visible by sunlight or by means of ambient light from ceiling fixtures. The taxonomy, or typological categorization of antiquities, was the focus: bronzes with bronzes, statuettes with statuettes, and vases with vases.

By the 1960s not only were such display cases thought to be old-fashioned, but they also limited the public’s appreciation of the ways in which different kinds of antiquities were used together in daily life, religion, and burial. The transition to more flexible display cases was ushered on by the invention of Lucite and Plexiglas in the 1930s, variants of acrylic safety glass that offered a more forgiving display technology than glass. This new medium allowed for the easy fabrication of vitrines with varying shapes and dimensions, and yielded installations that mixed works of different media along thematic lines.

In more recent times, the introduction of recorded tours and now digital interpretive technology has meant that wall texts and labels are no longer the only way to provide information and to engage public interest. Open storage has become more common, allowing visitors to see collections otherwise away from view, and to glimpse the magnitude of a collection’s representation of a given time or place.8 And web-based information allows non-visitors both to consult illustrated databases and fly-through videos or stitched-together still images of galleries.

Archaeological displays simulating the context in which objects were unearthed are popular, as are reconstructions of settings in which antiquities may have been stored and used in residences. The variety of installations in museums enlivens our encounters with objects that may at first be difficult to interpret. For example, period rooms with furnishings alongside p. 135statuary and frescoes are the most common kinds of simulated contexts in museums, more common in special exhibitions than in permanent displays.

Antiquities follow various paths from discovery to public display. The discovery of new antiquities will demand new storage space alongside objects excavated or acquired decades or centuries ago. The oversaturation of facilities will in many cases lead to ever-more crowded shelves, and with them attendant neglect and damage. Museums cannot continuously expand to cope with the emergence of new archaeological discoveries over decades and centuries to come, and other solutions must be found, ranging from long-term loans to collection sharing to the eventual possibility of a licit market to disseminate objects into foreign museums and private collections.


  • 1. Stefano Manacorda and Duncan Chappell, eds. Crime in the Art and Antiquities World: Illegal Trafficking in Cultural Property (New York: Springer Science & Business Media, 2011).

  • 2. Wendy Christensen, Empire of Ancient Egypt (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009), 135.

  • 3. For example, in 2009, the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York was estimated to own two million objects, but displays only tens of thousands at a time. At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, 18,000 objects were on display at any one time, but the Museum has an inventory of 450,000 objects. Geraldine Fabrikant, “The Good Stuff In The Back Room,” The New York Times, March 12, 2009.

  • 4. Even antiquities that have been documented or registered can be subject to theft once placed in a storeroom. For example, after excavation and registration in 1979, several ancient Egyptian duck-shaped vessels were stolen from a storeroom in Saqqara, Egypt. Two of the objects were returned in 2008, when the objects were offered for sale, but two vessels from the storeroom remain missing today. Also in 2008, the St. Louis Art Museum had to defend its purchase of an ancient Egyptian burial mask, after the Egyptian government claimed the mask had been stolen from a Saqqara storeroom.

  • 5. Christopher Groskopf, “Museums Are Keeping a Ton of the World’s Most Famous Art Locked Away in Storage,” Quartz, January 20, 2016.

  • 6. Philip Pullella, “Vatican Marks Anniversary of 1972 Attack on Michelangelo’s Pieta,” Reuters, May 21, 2013.

  • 7. Recent estimates for the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg indicate that only 30 percent of its collection of more than three million objects is in storage. Crystal Bennes, “What’s in Store at the State Hermitage Museum.” Apollo Magazine, March 17, 2016,

  • 8. Examples include the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art; the ceramics gallery in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; and the Storage Gallery of pre-Columbian art and artifacts at the Larco Museum in Lima.