Tonight is Bonfire Night. Fire has long been a component in purging rituals. A site where things are thrown to mark loss or moving on. In their destructive capacity they are the opposite of storage, they release the latent energy of material. The threat of fire haunts the storage facility, but containment can be suffocating.
Storage is the spatial component of collection.
The spatial necessity that comes with the accumulation of physical objects.
The proliferation of data centres attests to this spatiality not being limited to what we can touch.
I am currently working as an artist-in-residence at the Horniman Museum, specifically a natural history museum which opened in 1901 in South London. Frederick Horniman, its founder, who via his father had consolidated wealth from the tea industry ( thus a beneficiary of colonial exploits) - and was a passionate insect collector especially of beetles, moths and butterflies.
Natural history museums preserve what natural systems would otherwise redistribute. Rather than taxidermize a dead bird, its mass would be recirculated by a community of decomposers: bacteria, insects and rodents. The natural history museum seeks to preserve the integrity of material that resists composure, that desires to rot. What would it mean for natural history museums to incorporate permaculture principles into their preservation of biomatter?
The Horniman Museum’s online public database is itself a form of storage, one that helps navigate the physical storage, a kind of storage of storage. There are also many items in any vast storage that are not on the searchable database. These are objects in two-folds of darkness, doubly misted.
Although we can think of storage as the ‘backstage’ of a museum collection, the counterpoint to what’s on display and intended to be visible. Attention to storage is one way to understand where resources are allocated and what is valued in a given museum’s own collective imaginary; there is much to observe in how and where items are stored. Of course this is not the entire story, the decision making in any museum is also reflective of internal campaigning as to what resources are spent where. Nonetheless deficiencies in storage emphasize and remind us that some facets of a museum are more easily funded than others. That funding tends to focus on the more visible aspects of a museum, over the ‘backend’, pointing to how infrastructural support is often glossed over in favour of more immediately visually consumable impacts.
What of an object can be stored and what integral parts of it cannot be contained? This raises the notion of the distributed object, that might have a physical component that can be handled and elements that remain beyond grasp.
The phrase ‘beyond one’s grasp’ is often used to describe an idea of great complexity that is not understandable, but also points to a metaphorical and embodied relationship of touch to understanding, to handle as a form of knowing. ‘Mishandling’ equally appears in criticism of management and interpersonal relations.
One such distributed object might be the magic charm. On the Horniman Museum’s public facing database there are around one thousand ‘charms’ in the collection. These protective amulets are thought by their makers to give protection against evil, danger, or disease. They can be worn round the neck, wrist or ankle, in proximity to the body - often touching the skin. On the Horniman database they are also classified regionally – so may be tagged as being from West Africa, East Africa etc with little more detail than that. They are also labelled under ‘anthropology’. The classification and storage of magic objects is a stand out example of how differing knowledge systems intersect - or refuse intersection.
How are these charms to be approached in a Western European museological system? Especially in cases where they have been estranged from both knowledge systems and people? To become graspable, depending on the charm, might need an attending ritual, specific languages (which may no longer be spoken) and a faith in their efficacy which may no longer exist. While there is increasing recognition of the complexities of dealing with sacred, holy, culturally sensitive or ‘restricted’ objects. Some museums have proactively begun to work with indigenous healers or shamans in relation to specific objects and seek consent from indigenous people for specific items, however there isn't always this continuum of knowledge. What space is there for magic from the perspective of the European museum? This extends to the European practice of magic as well and associated items. The focus on charms is significant to me because it speaks of the un-returnable, not in the physical sense, but a rupture that occurred in dislocation that can not automatically be healed or smoothed over. How do you account for the removal of the defense that these charms offered?
A conceptualisation of storage is not limited to the museum, but extends to the personal and domestic. There has been continuous growth in the modern storage industry across Europe and North America since the 1950s. This is reflective of people moving more while also owning more things. In a move towards manifesting anti-consumerist, sustainable / regenerative logics, in recent years we have also seen the emergence of more localised ‘sharing-economies’ in urban contexts. . . initiatives built around collective, neighbourhood tool ownership for example, often using online app technology. The pooling of resources is a contesting of singular, possessive ownership. (Not all ownership need be possessive). In the clamour for restitution there is also space for a remodelling of the notion of museum ownership, that could begin from such tool-share models. This could extend to storage facilities themselves (i.e. to think of shared space not only objects), which in doing so enables storage space to function as a planetary commons.