No Curator, regardless of the size and wealth of the institution, would ever agree that they have enough space for their ever-growing collections.
Nor the money they need to look after and display them as they feel they should.
It is a problem that is as unique to the museum and gallery sector as it is insolvable. That’s why museums have always valued collaboration to improve professional practice.
From this desire to share and learn from one another came Tank Net; a semi-formal group of non-profit military museums who hold nationally recognised tank collections. The group is broad, with representation from across Europe and North America.
David, our Curator and Tank Net representative, explained that the meeting offers a valuable opportunity to catch up with industry peers and exchange advice, support and ideas to combat the challenges of the day.
As ever, the want of space and appropriate funds were behind many of the issues discussed at last months meeting.
All have been hit hard by COVID, but the pandemic has also had an unexpected side-effect.
The significant economic upheaval seen in the last two years has seen a number of business and organisations looking to offload physical assets. Similarly, property owners have had a lot more time to “clear things out”. The net result of this is a significant increase in the number of items being offered to museums as donations.
On the surface, this is great. But it is also leading to some hard decisions and interesting philosophical discussions about the future of collecting in the sector.
It’s clear all museums are all having to think hard about what they accept and why. Space is at a premium and its increasingly expensive to heat and maintain. Next, museums have a responsibility to record, catalogue and make those objects publicly available – processes which all add cost.
Faced with such economic realities, “duplicate” items become far less desirable…. How many 1947 Pattern Battledress sets does one museum really need in its collection?
At The Tank Museum, we too are now pretty much full to capacity from a vehicle perspective. Even so it’s difficult to turn down offers of donations when they arise. As a result of defence spending cuts this summer, the Warrior upgrade programme was canned and we were offered one of the prototype Warrior 2 vehicles by the MOD.
We were eager to accept, but not before careful consideration of how and where the vehicle could be stored. The Museum itself cannot squeeze in more and more vehicles indefinitely without losing the coherence of our popular exhibitions and reverting to a less engaging “car park” like display.
We built the Vehicle Conservation Centre in 2013 with a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to ensure the remaining vehicles stored outside could be put undercover.
That building is now also full, so you can see how in the not-to-distant future we may have to make some really tough decisions.
We will either need build more storage (at substantial six-figure cost), stop collecting, or amend our disposal policy in order to create space for important future acquisitions.
Most unpalatable is the consideration that a future Tank Museum Curator might find themselves considering how many variants of Centurion, Chieftain, Sherman, Churchill, etc they really need to tell the story. Tank museums are not alone in this problem. Many other museums in the UK and around the world are in exactly this sort of predicament right now.
David doesn’t believe this should just be a decision just for curators though, and he is keen to see the wider public engaged in the debate about what The Tank Museum collects and retains in the future. He is clear, however, that the idea that museums can continue collecting and retaining absolutely everything forever is not sustainable – because there isn’t the space or the money.
We want to continue collecting and we are always very grateful to our donors whose generosity allows this. But, as David says, this may see us treating our collection more like a rosebush in future; pruning regularly in order to keep it healthy and ensure it thrives in the future.