Making Visible the Storeroom: Creative Responses to Museums and Archives ‘Behind the Scenes’

This hybrid international symposium took place online and in person at the University of Brighton’s City Campus on May 12 2023, 1pm-6.30pm.

Confirmed Speakers include:

Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, Director of V&A East

Professor Rebecca M. Brown, Chair, History of Art, Johns Hopkins University

Dr Mirjam Brusius, German Historical Institute, London/Editor, 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in 1 Object

Dr Alison Hess, Lecturer in Museum and Gallery Studies, University of Westminster

Dr Craig Jordan-Baker, Writer and Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, University of Brighton

Michael Takeo Magruder, Artist

Dr Helen Mears, Head of Research, National Museums Greenwich

With kind permission, the event will feature a screening of Onyeka Igwe’s a so-called archive (2020).

Hosted by the Centre for Design History and the Centre for Memory, Narrative and Histories at the University of Brighton, this symposium asks 1) how collections staff, museum and archive publics, artists, writers, activists and community groups have responded to and experienced collections stores, historically and more recently, and 2) how this expanded knowledge of historic and contemporary barriers can support new approaches to open, accessible, sustainable and dynamic storage spaces of the future.

Museums and archives across the globe are working to revolutionise public access to their storehouses, aiming to transform them into sites of creativity and community engagement. In these projects, the collections storeroom is often framed through its potential to attract new and diverse audiences, and inspire the telling of original stories through access to a more expansive and thus inclusive heritage (e.g. Kreplak and Mairesse 2021). Guided tours, study galleries, and ‘visible storage’ spaces have been trialed since the 1960s (Thiemeyer 2017); today there is a burgeoning culture of major complexes entirely devoted to open collections storage and public access, such as Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam and V&A East. Based on nearly forty years of experience with open storage in museums and archives, scholars and practitioners are increasingly attending to its histories, value, complexities and limits (e.g. Brusius and Singh 2018, Depots 2014).

Yet wider, more inclusive responses to museum and archival storage (whether ‘visible’ or ‘behind the scenes’) often remain absent from these discussions. The democratising promise of accessible storage must be informed by a deep understanding of how these spaces have been perceived historically and in the present day by those that they intend to attract. In parallel to professional developments in museums and archives, artists, communities and collections practitioners involved in the day-to-day labour of this work have been imagining and rendering these spaces and processing them through creative means. Well-known projects by established artists include Andy Warhol’s Raid the Icebox 1 (1969), Dayanita Singh’s File Room (2013), Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue (2013), Stefan Oláh’s Museumsdepots (2014) and Jewyo Rhii’s Love Your Depot (2020). The responses of many others who interact with and process these spaces are also integral to understanding the appeal and expectations of storerooms, as well as their barriers to access.

In this symposium, scholars, museum professionals, archivists, artists and writers will come together to consider how the storeroom, the fileroom, and other ‘behind the scenes’ spaces of the museum and archive have been perceived over time. With full acknowledgement that storage and the records and objects housed within it privilege Eurocentric constructions of conservation, care and selection, and carry histories and legacies of erasure and absence, the symposium encourages voices who explore those silences and partial echoes. We seek to examine the storeroom through a lens that illuminates alternate stories, thinks differently about what a ‘room’ might mean, and offers meditations on storage and its history as entwined with mercantile, imperial, and colonial violence. Exploring perceptions of the museum storage through lived experience and creative work, from the visual arts to poetry and performance, might also deepen a shared understanding of the embodied and multi-sensory aspects of storerooms, and how some things should not be made visible – where visibility itself is not a value to be celebrated, but one to be carefully considered in relation to a particular community. The programme explicitly aims to amplify a range of ways of knowing outside of traditional modes of academic study, and bring these into dialogue with academics and practitioners in the museum and heritage sector.

This event is co-organised by Prof Rebecca M. Brown (Johns Hopkins University) and Dr Claire Wintle (University of Brighton). It is supported by the University of Brighton’s Global Fellowships Scheme, the Centre for Design History and the Centre for Memory, Narrative and Histories. For informal enquiries, please email Dr Claire Wintle at

The symposium is in-person, free of charge, and refreshments will be provided. It will take place in M2, Grand Parade Main Building, University of Brighton, 58–67 Grand Parade, BN2 0JY