The future of preservation - trends in the construction of museum depots

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News I Image: 2023 Nicolaus Schäffler

Although less present in the public perception, museum depots are an essential part of museum infrastructure. They are a central place where museums fulfil their mission of collecting and preserving. As diverse and valuable as collection objects often are, the demands on depots are often as varied and at the same time high. Examples include indoor environmental conditions (such as climate and air conditions), technical equipment and logistics (such as delivery conditions, routing).

Older depots in particular sometimes make the proper storage of collections a challenge. For example, the rooms are unclear, objects are difficult to access, an unregulated room climate and a lack of light protection endanger objects, and pests are also more difficult to keep out. And sometimes there is simply not enough space: the collections grow, but the depots do not grow with them. These and other reasons can make a new building necessary, and here a look at current developments and trends should be part of the planning phase:

  • What are the requirements for museum depots today and in the future?
  • What opportunities and new spaces of possibility can a new depot building offer to museum work?

First of all, there are various macro trends that are relevant for public sector construction as a whole and also for museum depots. In particular, sustainability is playing an increasingly important role, for example through the use of environmentally friendly building materials or also the use of energy-efficient technology and sources of renewable energy. The recently opened Kunstdepot Darmstadt, which operates in a completely climate-neutral manner, may certainly serve as a best-practice example here. Digitalisation and its corresponding infrastructural consideration also hold opportunities for museum depots. For example, digital solutions can support the recording and management of collection objects, make objects digitally accessible or support the targeted preventive conservation of valuable objects. The German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven, for example, is ambitiously pursuing digitisation.
In addition, there are other major trends that are increasingly relevant, especially for culture and its building projects. These include opening up and enabling participation, increasing flexibility and multifunctionality of spaces, as well as the use of synergies, which are particularly relevant for the public sector in challenging times. These trends are also increasingly reflected in the conception of museum depots. Various depot concepts can be mentioned, each of which refers to one of these trends in particular:

a) The show depot - visitors discover new treasures and the diversity of museum work
Show depots are places where non-exhibited collection objects are stored and at the same time made accessible to the general public. In keeping with the idea of openness and participation, museum processes become more transparent and can thus inspire visitors. At the same time, this gives museums the opportunity to communicate the diversity of their tasks and their social relevance: A museum is certainly a place for exhibiting, but it is also a place for preserving unique objects of historical heritage (see the practical example of the Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam).
In this context, various particularities have to be taken into account when opening a depot. For example, it is important to check where museum work (e.g. restoration) is to be made visible and how visibility can be ensured through appropriate structural design. In addition, visitor flows must be taken into account in route planning and accessibility must always be weighed against maintaining security and optimal conditions for collection items in terms of conservation.

b) The collection centre - a variety of museum uses under one roof
Collection centres aim in particular at supplementing the classic use of a depot with other museum tasks. For example, in addition to storage, research and the restoration of objects as well as university teaching are possible in collection centres (see the Collection and Research Centre of the Tyrolean Provincial Museums). Collection centres contain the necessary infrastructures for these uses, such as workshops or workplaces. The advantages of collection centres lie in the spatial bundling of museum tasks. Distances are shortened and additional contact points are created between staff members to exchange knowledge and experience. In addition, such a solution enables the use of economic synergies. When planning and realising collection centres, it is important, among other things, to have a forward-looking spatial arrangement in order to link functional areas in a meaningful way.

c) The compound depot - joint use of resources
Compound depots are central storage locations for different collections or museums, usually from the same regional area or from the same institution. By bundling spaces and infrastructures, cost synergies can be realised through joint use. In addition, compound depots can be a place for employees of different museums to exchange knowledge and experience. It should be noted that coordination between several actors is necessary, e.g. with regard to logistics, administration or access rights. Emergency preparedness is also of particular importance here, because in the event of an accident, more objects may be affected than in a decentralised depot structure. An example of this is the central depot of the Schleswig-Holstein State Museums, which was opened in 2018 and houses over one million collection objects.

It should be noted that the depot concepts presented are not mutually exclusive. For example, a collection centre that includes various other museum uses can at the same time be designed entirely or partially as a display depot or be used by several museums.

On the way to the new depot, a general inventory may also be necessary. Jessica Kirchner-Wagner offers an overview of success factors and the opportunities of digitisation in this context in her article "How a general inventory becomes a success".


An impulse contribution by Dr. Sebastian Lücke, consulting with preliminary work by Luise Stülpnagel, alumnae.

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