Tales from the Crypt: Museum Storage and Meaning

London, October 30-31, 2014

The next workshop of the Museums and Art History focus area will take place on October 30th and 31st, 2014, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Theme of the workshsop is "Tales from the Crypt: Museum Storage and Meaning", it is convened by Mirjam BRUSIUS (Oxford University) and Kavita SINGH (School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University).

It is organised with the help of the Victoria and Albert Museum.


Museums are about display. But are they really? In spite of recent curatorial attempts to exhibit ’visible storage’, prevailing debates in the history of museums and collecting are mainly centred around questions of exhibiting, display and spectatorship. This kind of discourse, however, distorts the museum in many ways: it ignores the fact that museums do not just consist of exhibition halls but of vast hidden spaces; it leaves millions of objects out of our museum histories; and lastly, it presents the museum as an organized and stable space, in which only museological ’results’ are visible not the intermediate stage of their coming into being.

Display seems to be about the structured, purposeful, strategic gathering of things according to a system, the features of which are clearly defined.

What remains out of sight is the fact that the majority of museum objects lie in storage. As a result, not only a vast physical but also important epistemological and semantic aspect of museums and their collections are eliminated from our discussions.


The binary between ’display’ and ’backstage’ of museums has previously evoked the assumption that the exhibition area functions as a kind of theatre with objects ’perform’ on stage, while in the back they are processed from their existence as a mere ’thing’ to a proper artefact. But there is much more to say about museum storage. Backstage areas of museums are not simply areas where potential display objects are kept. They perform functions and fulfil intentions that, when studied, reveal deep purposes of the museum that go well beyond a mere history of display.  The backstage of museums, for example, has often included archives, study centres and libraries, which have been and still are centres of scholarly pursuit. In fact, until around 1900 museums were major resources and the major sites for advanced research in many disciplines. The vast reserve collections could include materials that a museum acquired without ever having intended to put them on display. Thus, an object that was judged to be worth collecting might also be one that was always destined to remain in storage. This might be because it was unwieldy - perhaps because it was too large or too small to display; or perhaps because it was aesthetically unremarkable or incomprehensible or too fragmentary; or perhaps it was judged to be morally sensitive, as say were human remains and pornography which might be collected but would be stored for perusal by a chosen few.


Thinking about the threshold between storage and display provokes not only questions about the mysterious ’backstage’ of museums, but entirely new questions about canonization, the politics of collecting, the ethics of preservation and economies of storage and display; categories that may and will be discussed very differently in India, Europe or elsewhere.


Wednesday, October 29th


04.00pm              visit of the South & South East Asia Study Room of the V&A, with Nick BARNARD

07.30pm              Dinner


Thursday, October 30th

[ the first day of the workshop takes place at The Clothworkers’ Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion of the Victoria & Albert Museum ]


10.00 am             Welcome

10.15 am             Session 1 - The Unshown, the Unshowable, the No-Longer-Shown
                               Chairpersons: Naman Ahuja and James Delbourgo

12.00 am             Buffet Lunch

01.00 pm             Session 2 - The Spaces of Storage
                               Chairpersons: Nicky Reeves and Upinder Singh

02.45 pm             Coffee break

03.15 pm             Tour of the Clothworkers’ Center and other storage facility at Blythe House

04.45 pm             Round table discussion
                               Moderator: Martin Roth
                               Participants: Alice Stevenson, Deborah Swallow

07.30pm              Dinner


Friday, October 31st

[ the second day of the workshop takes place at at The Victoria and Albert Museum, main building ]


10.00 am             Session 3 - Museum as Archive
                               Chairpersons: Kavita Singh and Cristina Riggs


12.00 am             Buffet Lunch

01.00pm              Session 4 - Things and Virtual Things
                               Chairpersons: Jyotindra Jain and Ruth Horry

03.00pm              end of the workshop


03.30pm              Visit of the ’visible storage’ Ceramics Galleries of the V&A, with Reino LIEFKES


Naman AHUJA , Exhibition Body in Indian Art for Europalia, link

Hannah BAADER , Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institute, link

Sutapa BISWAS, artist

Mirjam BRUSIUS, University of Oxford, link

Marie-Eve CELIO SCHEURER, Rietberg museum

James DELBOURGO, Rutgers University - department of history, link

Lauren FRIED, PhD Candidate at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal College of Art

Clare HARRIS, University of Oxford and Pitt Rivers Museum, link

Svante HELMBAEK TIREN, Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation link

Ruth HORRY, University of Cambridge, link

Jyotindra JAIN, School of Arts and Aesthetics - JNU, Delhi, link

Bram JANSSENS, Museum aan de Stroom, Antwerpen

Kathryn JOHNSON, Victoria and Albert Museum

Samuel JUBE, Nantes Institute for Advanced Study link

Priya KHANCHANDANI, Victoria and Albert Museum

Sunil KHILNANI, King’s India Institute, Chairman of IEARN link

Andrea MEYER, Technische Universität Berlin, department of art history link

Krittika NARULA, Crafts Museum, Delhi

Nicholas REEVES, Hunterian Museum in the University of Glasgow link

Christina RIGGS, University of East Anglia link

Martin ROTH, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum link

Bill SHERMAN, Head of Research of the Victoria and Albert Museum link

Nathan SCHLANGER, Ecole nationale des chartes Paris link

Kavita SINGH, School of Arts and Aesthetics - JNU, Delhi link

Upinder SINGH, University of Delhi, Department of history link

Alice STEVENSON, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL link

Sue STRONGE, senior curator at the Asia department of the Victoria and Albert Museum

Deborah SWALLOW, The Courtauld Institute of Art link

Astrid SWENSON, Brunel University London link


Final Report

The final report based on the papers presented at the workshop can be found here

Call for Publications

A Call for Publications in a forthcoming volume can be found here.

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