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Can museums afford to keep everything in storage?

17th January 2020

Store, share or sell

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The art auction is very much in vogue. Pieces in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of pounds are seen as stable assets, and a perfect way for wealthy people to invest their money and acquire a prestige decoration. With prices rocketing and sales becoming more competitive, you would think that museums are more dependent than ever on donated art and artefacts.

Strangely, however, this is not exactly true. The increase in art sales has if anything seen an increase in donations, with items loaned or given away as charitable tax write-offs. The reality of the situation for many major museums is that they are receiving too many donations, and are becoming increasingly scrupulous about what they take in. For many, there’s now an ultimatum: either the fundamentals of museum storage have to change, or they need fewer things to store.


The gift that keeps on giving

You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that museums often struggle for funding. With many museums around the world permitting free entry – including the majority of museums in London – upkeep and expansion are always a difficult prospect. Naturally, this also impacts on their ability to acquire new works, which help to attract new visitors.

As a result, museums still rely heavily on donated artworks and artefacts – and have seen collections snowball as a result. In the United States, some museums’ collections have grown tenfold over the last 50 years; the MFA Houston, at the extreme end of the scale, has grown by over 1400%. Yet limited space and the delicacy of many objects – often artworks sensitive to light – mean that only a tiny percentage can be displayed at any one time.

The need for storage in museums and galleries is increasingly pressing, as is the sensitivity of those artworks. And while these institutions may own billions of pounds worth of items, this doesn’t mean they have billions of pounds to spend. A balance has to be struck between acquiring new works that will increase footfall (and hopefully revenue), while also storing and preserving thousands of works that they don’t necessarily want.


Donate, negotiate

Unless you’re the V&A, your museum probably started out as a small complex in the 19th or 20th century. To grow and establish themselves, these museums often courted large donations, and made bargains to secure many of them. In some cases, this might have included an exhibition for the lifetime of the donator; in others, entire wings would have been built to permanently display these items, with the details written into binding contracts.

Today, most museums are much more cautious about such arrangements. Many have found themselves shackled by previous agreements, and have found that they are unable to sell or even store certain items, even if their evaluation has changed. Some large collections have been found to contain numerous forgeries or imitations, while others can vary dramatically in quality.

Despite this, the museums are frequently obliged to keep and display these works. Other contracts are still legally binding despite there being no living relative of the signatories, and therefore no way to seek amendments. Storing these items is an expensive endeavour, requiring climate-controlled vaults, frequent check-ups and careful maintenance. This is not to mention the logistics of protecting displayed works, or bringing new ones into the fold, which must be quarantined to prevent any pests that could spread to the rest of the collection.

In the face of this dilemma, many museums are taking stock, literally and figuratively. Institutions such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art have begun years-long processes to catalogue every piece in their collections, and to give each one a grade between A and D. An ‘A’ is considered a masterpiece; a ‘D’ is damaged, or unimportant, or generally one the museum could do without. They then look to sell these D-grade pieces to smaller museums, who may be happier to take them.


Cold storage

The Museum of Modern Art is perhaps the most prolific in this field – understandably, perhaps, as it houses one of the world’s biggest collections. As well as selling major pieces, negotiations are frequently opened with donors and trustees, in order to lease stored artworks to other museums. Despite this, however, MoMA is still in the process of building a new $400 million storage facility.

Art and artefact storage is not always this expensive, but it does require unique expertise, and a particularly close working relationship between the storage provider and the institution. The delicate nature of many items affects not just the way they are stored – how they are supported and divided, for example – but also the conditions they are stored in. While some facilities have chosen to store items in areas open to visitors, most must be kept away from public view.

Almost all valuable works require strict climate controls, minimising the deteriorative effects of light (which fades ink) and heat (which can accelerate chemical and bacterial breakdowns). As with any storage project, these unique demands also have to be balanced with efficiency. Many museums occupy listed buildings where storage is at a premium, and have extremely varied collections, requiring that storage solutions be both multi-use and particularly dense.


Cultural capital

As it turns out, most museums find that selling or relocating artworks can be an extremely taxing process. First is the natural opposition to getting rid of artworks. This often goes down badly with the public, who feel that museums should preserve artworks as a public good, and don’t want the value of a major tourist attraction to be diminished. Second is the issue of misidentification or misappreciation: artworks have routinely been undervalued at one point in history, only to come into fashion years later and become far more sought after.

Thirdly – and perhaps most prominently – getting rid of artworks can be a legal minefield. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was investigated by the Attorney General after selling 50 gifted artworks, many of which had turned out to be low-quality. Others have found themselves blacklisted by fellow institutions after selling art to survive, and have not been permitted to borrow works for travelling exhibitions.

It’s important to note that museums are still overwhelmingly reliant on donations to support their efforts – and overwhelmingly grateful for them. But with hundreds of years worth of items stockpiled, it’s impossible to display everything at once, and often impossible to store it too.

While the process must be carefully managed, passing on items to other museums and collections where they can be seen and enjoyed is increasingly common – and should be recognised as an inevitable and natural part of art conversation.

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