The Surprising Statistics of U.S. Collecting Institutions

No one can doubt the value of museums and libraries. These institutions are the repositories of our collective cultural memories, preserving history via written word and artifact, helping us find our way forward by knowing where we came from. And our U.S. collecting institutions – libraries, museums, archives, historical societies, and scientific collections – have created truly remarkable assemblages, according to the recently released results of the Heritage Health Information Survey:

  • The U.S. is home to more than 31,000 collecting institutions.
  • More than 13 billion items, from artworks to arrowheads, are preserved in these institutions.
  • Of those 13 billion items, many are in the form of individual paper documents, enough to fill 347 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Given these astonishing numbers, it’s no surprise that proper storage is vital for these collecting institutions. Museums and archives in particular put much of their effort into the conservation of their unique collections. They need storage that not only accommodates all the unusual sizes and shapes of artifacts, but preserves objects from further deterioration. Humidity and chemically-incompatible surfaces are damaging to any ancient artifact, and those Olympic pools of paper documents are especially prone to insect damage as well.

Luckily, storage providers have already anticipated the needs of collecting institutions, designing an array of space-saving, customizable, and protective systems. Adjustable shelving and partitioned drawers and bins fit artifacts both large and small. Flat files are well-suited to paper documents and unframed photos and paintings, while vertical racks hold framed artworks. These museum-friendly storage systems have non-reactive finishes and are sturdy enough for the heavy weight of stone sculptures or military ordinance.

Museums are chronically challenged to find enough exhibit space for their treasures, but a well-designed storage system can transform storage space into additional exhibit space. A high-density mobile storage system can save up to 50% of floor space, and a vertical storage carousel or a multi-level shelving system saves up to 80% of floor space (this video shows how one museum expanded its storage upward instead of outward).

Keeping track of all those objects can be a challenge, too. A written tracking system is time-consuming and often inaccurate. A bar code system is better, but it becomes ineffective if bar codes are obscured or damaged. An RFID system, with inconspicuous RFID tags that communicate with an RFID inventory reader, allows museum managers to track an object as it moves from storage to conservation room to exhibit room.

The work of U.S. collecting institutions is too important to trust to outmoded storage methods. With the help of an experienced storage consultant, conservators can look after their collections properly, now and in the future, as their collections grow far beyond the current numbers.

 

Photo © caftor / AdobeStock