Opportunities in store

Alex Stevens, 24.05.2019
SMG’s new storage centre will allow for greater engagement and access
The Science Museum Group’s (SMG) enormous new storage centre is taking shape – rectangular, warehousey shape – on a former airfield in the rolling hills of Wiltshire.

The new building, on the site of the organisation’s current National Collections Centre in Wroughton, is set to be ready in spring 2020. Once construction is complete, the two-year process of transferring more than 300,000 items will begin. 

0. Construction of the new collection management facility at the National Collections Centre © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum_crop

It is hoped that the new centre will welcome thousands of visitors a year, including schoolchildren, researchers and interested members of the public, from 2023.

At an event last week to view the site, the SMG’s managing director Jonathan Newby said the project was “all about access and engagement” – but he could equally have said that a defining characteristic of the project is opportunity.

For one, the SMG is taking the opportunity to digitise those 300,000 objects, and has put in place new workflows and technology that have brought the process down from seven or eight minutes per object to around three. It’s a huge undertaking that has already started – as of 16 May, 141,138 objects had been photographed and recorded – and the collections team running the process is uncovering stories that are being regularly shared online.

The move is also about the opportunity presented by moving out of Blythe House. It’s interesting to compare the responses of the three institutions currently using the west London store (whose value the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has itself availed of the opportunity to release, providing a total of £150m to SMG, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) to find other options). 

2. Photography of objects for digitisation © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum_crop

The British Museum, whose World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre opened on its Bloomsbury site in 2014, is planning a new facility in partnership with the University of Reading to house its Archaeological Research Collection. 

The V&A is planning a collections and research centre in east London, part of the V&A East development that will also see the opening of a new five-storey museum building at nearby Stratford Waterfront. 

In contrast to these urban facilities, the SMG’s plan is prioritising efficiency and scale. There is no high-profile architect, and the building is informed by the process and functionality of Amazon rather than placemaking or iconic design.

This is perfectly sensible, not least because of the size of some of the items in the collection – objects don’t get much bigger than transatlantic airliners. But it will make “putting public access at the heart of its plans”, as the now former arts minister Michael Ellis approvingly put it last week, more of a challenge.

There is a bus stop, but to compare the regularity of these services with the transport infrastructure in Stratford feels more like a Silicon Valley interview question than a serious exercise.

And where the V&A’s collection centre promises to “turn the store inside out” with a central public collection hall (featuring a 15th-century marquetry ceiling from Spain’s Altamira Palace, no less), the SMG’s communications put the focus on the scale of the building, its conservation laboratories, research spaces and photography studios, and the collection itself.

All of which suggests a rational approach to the perennial problem of storage, based on efficient access – digital and physical – and scale.

With stories being told online, collections increasingly having an impact on tour, and the SMG already having several physical museums to show and interpret its collection, it makes sense to take this opportunity to be as practical as possible.