Through the back door

Problems of museum storage in Hungary

In the richer parts of the world X-ray, electromagnetic and cooling technologies can help with conservation. In Hungary it’s something good if the temperature can be measured! The storage situation of 33 million items is tragic – many places lack security grills and two-thirds of storerooms are damp. The majority of museums try to remedy the desperate state of affairs with ‘open storage’, since some exhibition space is gained and finances can be found to undertake the necessary protective work. Other museums go for the much cheaper module storage method. Currently a solution has to be found for the custody of approaching 33 million objects held in Hungary’s nearly 900 museums. A dismal picture emerges from the survey begun in 2003. In 96% of cases storage facilities didn’t even have a thermometer and 80% lacked the means to measure humidity. 64% were chock-full and in almost 70% objects were kept on the floor or propped against the walls. About 60% of the items were without covering or not kept in cupboards. Only a quarter of entrances to exhibitions and store-rooms were protected by grills and only about half the buildings had alarm systems. 17% of institutes had no means of protection at all and there were security guards in only 3%. There was no form of heating in at least 70% of store-rooms and in some cases the temperature would fall to minus 7 in winter and rise to plus 41 in summer. However, according to Mária Fábián, one of the project coordinators, what’s more important is the question of attitude. “Installing a thermometer and reading it isn’t a matter of money,” she stresses. The simple, dust-free storage system in the Museum of Ethnography is an example of how to store objects. Between 2004 and 2009 at a cost of 23 million forints a 260 sq. metre storage space was created in the museum’s loft to accommodate a variety of collections. Within the framework of the project similar facilities have been created in a number of museums across the country and although that’s by no means the end the finances have dried up. Only 5-7% of total collections can be seen in permanent and temporary exhibitions. Air-conditioning is just a dream for the majority of museums and where it does exist its operation represents a problem. However, the trends show some changes. László Baán, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, points out that, given the ever-growing amount of stored items across the world and the demands for energy saving, it’s worth thinking about whether to keep to the current standards of 19-20 degrees temperature and 40-50% humidity. With storage spaces becoming full there has appeared the realisation that the immense quantity of items should somehow be made displayable to the public. Hence the ‘open store-rooms’ and the more serious ‘study depots’ which have been debated for a long time and which are now sweeping through Hungary’s museums like a tidal wave. EU support is involved and 890 million forints is being invested to create these across the country. The open store-room at the Skanzen in Szentendre, created about a decade ago, was the first and to this day is the biggest and most visited example of this type in Hungary. Its 7800 sq. metre reception building housing offices and storage space was built at the same time. Only several hundred million forints was needed to establish the 2800 sq. metre storage space suitable for both the appropriate storing of objects and for allowing access by the public. The example followed was Vienna’s Hofmobiliendepot, which used to be the Habsburg family’s furniture store from where items of furniture would be dispatched to various residences in the realm. The Austrians kept the original form of the depository and opened it to the public. However, numerous problems have arisen relating to how to store objects of different sizes which require different types of storing. How can you simultaneously ensure that visitors can get close to objects, while providing protection for the items? Smaller objects are in glass cabinets, while larger ones – such as beds, benches and chests – are outside. Szentendre’s Open-Air Museum has almost 90,000 objects, about a third of which can be seen in exhibitions, while 11,000 are currently in open storage. There is room for more, so soon over half the items in the collection will be on display. Undoubtedly the National Technical Museum finds itself in one of the most difficult situations in Hungary, which hasn’t been helped much by its merger with the Transport Museum in 2009. In 1965 the institute obtained a building suitable for storage, offices and workshops, and in 1983 it also got a three-storey building for storage with 4400 sq. metres of space. However, by 2005 all the space was fully taken up. Given its out-of-the-way location, it is impossible to create a new museum without large exhibitions, other attractions and major marketing efforts. The number of visitors declined. Then it was closed in the winter and as of this year you can only visit by giving advanced notice. The fate of the Postal Museum is similar. For a long time it only existed ‘in storage’. But when finally the museum’s permanent exhibition opened in 1972 in a former first-floor apartment in Andrássy Avenue it wasn’t possible to display a cross-section of the collection. Thus branch museums were established across the country, the first at Balatonszemes, which actually preceded the Budapest exhibition. Perhaps the Technical Museum could follow suit. Nevertheless, there are some positive examples. Hungary’s largest and most up-to-date storage facility belongs to the Csongrád County Museums Directorate. It would be good to be able to say that the existence of the 4000 sq. metre restoration and storage centre was due to forward planning, but it rather came about by chance. In the mid-1990s the Móra Ferenc Museum in Szeged obtained part of an industrial site on the outskirts of the town with a view to easing its terrible storage problems. István Zombori dared to have big dreams, perhaps more than any other museum director. He requested that for logistical reasons the new storage centre be no farther than 2.5 kilometres, and for environmental reasons not directly by a main road, though it ought to be easily reached. The building should at least have 4000 sq. metres of useful space and stand in grounds twice as large, so there would be room for expansion or establishing an open-air depository. Then there was a miracle. In summer 2009 the foundation stone was laid near the motorway leading to Budapest for a two-storey building with a groundplan of 2000 sq. metres standing on a plot measuring 11,500 sq. metres. The total cost amounted to 910 million forints, and what’s more of a wonder for Hungary, the museum could move in at the end of the year. The two floors of the Hungarian Natural History Museum’s new building remain empty. Items currently kept in the museum’s two other buildings would be moved there. However, everything remains in a problematic state, since the government recently proposed that the museum buildings could be a possible location for the planned National Public Service University, due to open in 2012.