Museums often keep much of the collection in storage 8-07

By Diane Toroian Keaggy
St. Louis, Missouri (AP) - A Comanche shield, August Chouteau’s furniture, Katherine Dunham’s shoes. The Missouri Historical Society owns thousands, make that millions, of paintings, weapons, tools, uniforms, diaries and documents that chronicle our region’s history.

Chances are, you’ll see none of them.

Like most cultural institutions, the Missouri History Museum possesses far more than it could ever show. So the rest is stored on four climate-controlled floors at the museum’s offsite Library and Research Center.

“I’m constantly surprised by the collection,” said Missouri Historical Society president Robert Archibald. “I’ll bring people back here to look, and they will say, ‘This is the best exhibit you have.”’

The storage closets, warehouses and basements of St. Louis’ largest institutions are engorged with hidden gems. The Checkerdome scoreboard rests in a City Museum warehouse. Rare manuscripts are locked in “the cage” at the St. Louis Public Library. The oldest passenger railroad car in North America sits in the Museum of Transportation’s secret warehouse. And until recently, six Pablo Picasso paintings languished in a St. Louis Art Museum storeroom.

“Most museums exhibit maybe 20 percent of their collections,” said Molly Butterworth, the Museum of Transportation’s collections curator. “People are always surprised that we have so much in storage, but there are a number of reasons why something may not be on display. Often, it’s space.”

The Museum of Transportation, Laumeier Sculpture Park and St. Louis Public Library all plan to expand, and the St. Louis Art Museum expects to open new galleries in 2011.

But space or no space, museums always are hunting for new finds. No, they don’t want Aunt Alice’s moldy romance novels or Grandpa’s rusted jalopy – and these have been offered. They may not even want a valuable painting if, for instance, they own a similar work.

But what they do want may surprise you. The St. Louis Public Library is searching for catalogs from defunct St. Louis businesses, the City Museum recently accepted 50 bags of seashells, and the History Museum could throw quite a party with the old board games and beer stocked on its shelves.

“Our collecting is pretty broadly based,” Archibald said. “What we really want are stories that help us understand this community and its people.”

Maybe those artifacts will end up in an exhibit; maybe not. That’s not the point.

“This collection was started even before there was a museum,” Archibald said. “What we’re guessing is what people will want to know 100, 200 years from now.”

The St. Louis Art Museum, in contrast, considers the storage room to be just a pit stop.

“If it’s a great work of art, it’s either on view or it has recently been on view – which in museum time means the last 10 years – or it will be on view,” said Charlotte Eyerman, the museum’s modern-art curator. “For us, the commitment is to get treasures into the light.”

When Eyerman, a relative newcomer, learned that six Picassos were stuck in storage, she was determined to find them a home. This summer she did: a museum stairway landing and nearby gallery.

“Not ideal, but it creates a nice Picasso moment,” Eyerman said.

But to make room, Eyerman shelved AndrÈ Derain’s “At the Suresnes Ball,” a classic work featured in Pierre Rosenberg’s book “Only in America: One Hundred Paintings in American Museums Unmatched in European Collections.”

“There is a domino effect,” Eyerman said. “When things move around – and they do because we loan so many of our works – galleries can change their focus. I think people tend to get a little blasÈ about the permanent collection, but we always are finding ways to reinvent our galleries to reflect different themes.”

Museum storage spaces are as varied as their collections. Laumeier and the Museum of Transportation keep artifacts in secret, offsite facilities. However, they will open their collections to scholars, as will the Art Museum, although Eyerman expects a researcher would need “10 levels of approval.”

The collection at the Missouri Historical Society also is secure, though the public can view any object by request. Curators must swipe security cards to enter a storeroom and wear white gloves to handle objects. Sculptures are nestled in foam; paintings are tightly hooked to rolling racks.

No need to clean; there is no dust.

“This building has an extremely efficient filtration system,” Archibald said. “It’s like a hospital environment.”

The History Museum also protects what some would consider the spirit of many Indian objects, Archibald said.

“Katherine Dunham was walking through here and she said, ‘There are ghosts in this place,”’ recalled Archibald. “Whether you believe that or not, Indian people do, so it’s important to respect that. We have had Indian consultants talk to us about the appropriate way to store things.”

Archibald acknowledges that inventory is an unrelenting headache. Each item is measured, photographed and numbered before being stored.

“If you can’t track it, you’ve lost it,” Archibald said.

The City Museum keeps its collection on several floors, the garage and a few offsite places. Here are boxes of Christmas ornaments, there are stacked church pews, over there is a Ferris Wheel. Everywhere is dust.

How do staffers keep track?

“It’s all in Bob’s head,” said operations chief Rick Erwin. Bob, of course, is Bob Cassilly, co-founder of the City Museum, a collection of art transformed from trash. Electric-meter covers soon will turn into glass walls; an old hot-dog cart becomes a parking sign.

“It’s amazing, but I can only think of maybe once when he was wrong about where something was,” Erwin said.

The City Museum also lacks the high-tech security measures other museums employ. Erwin said vandals occasionally break into the nearby warehouse, usually in search of scrap copper.

“Most of the stuff we collect, they wouldn’t want,” Erwin said. “Only Bob can see its value.”