On International Museum Day, the documentalists of the Museum Documentation Center presented the first comprehensive analysis of the state and challenges of preserving heritage in Croatian museums at the conference Museum Storages – From Collection Care to Collection Policy. The survey was distributed to 162 museums listed in the Register of public and private museums in the Republic of Croatia, with a 75% response rate. The aim was to show the general state of storing objects at the museum level, and museums with more storage rooms and locations had to include them all in their answers.

Museum storage spaces
Only one-fifth of the surveyed museums have a purpose-built storage room. Most of the space (82% of the museums) was built for other purposes and subsequently converted into storage facilities. A third of museums have a room with a storage function inside their museum building, and 75 of them use attics and basements that are unsuited for storing museum and documentation objects. So much as 62% of museums keep their holdings in other areas inside the building—spaces which are not in the attic nor in the basement, which often have different functions and are not equipped for storing, but are simply available (such as office and even exhibition spaces). Next are the storage spaces on off-site locations reported by almost half of the museums.

The total area of the existing storage rooms of the surveyed museums (75% of the museums from the Register) is 53,260 m². Most museums report available storage surfaces ranging from 100 to 500 m². In the category of up to 100 m², 19 museums have even less than 50 m² of storage space. On the other hand, out of the 12 museums with more than 1,000 m², three museums report storage space larger than 3,000 m². Nevertheless, 93% of the museums do not have enough space, considering the number of objects they possess. More than a third of them need an additional 100 to 500 m², and 32 museums would be content with an extra 100 m². Only nine museums do not require additional space.

Only 44 museums can forecast how much additional space they will require over the next ten years to accommodate future collection growth. Most of them (61%) expressed space requirements in the ranges from 100 to 300 m², 300 to 500 m², and 500 to 1,000 m². Nine museums will need more than 1,000 m², and two of them even more than 4,000 m². Only one museum has enough storage space and will not require additional space over the next ten years. The approximate sum of the space required over the next ten years is 44,786 m², but this only covers museums that have a storage space projection—a quarter of the museums from the Register, that is. So much as 81 museums do not have any space projections.

Conditions of storing and preventive conservation
Most of the museums (64%) have insufficiently or partially equipped storage rooms. Less than a third of the museums consider their storage rooms to be entirely equipped.

Regarding physical and technical security, 60% of the museums implemented access control, meaning they limited the number of staff with access to storage rooms. Less than half of the museums installed security alarm systems, and 39% installed video surveillance systems. Less than a quarter of the museums have guard services, but even more surprisingly, 14% of the museums do not have a single form of physical or technical security system in place.

Among the devices for monitoring and maintaining the stable microclimate in the storage rooms, museums most often use instruments for measuring relative humidity and temperature (62%). However, more than one-third of them still do not have such a device, which is the foundation of preventive conservation. It is worrying that a third of the museums do not have any means of monitoring microclimate.

Most surveyed museums (79%) have fire extinguishers, and 58% installed fire alarm systems. But only 9% of the museums have automatic fire suppression systems, and 12% do not have fire protection inside their storage rooms. Also, almost one-half of the surveyed museums do not have a flood control system in storage rooms located in a basement or on the ground floor.

Among additional standards of preventive conservation, museums expressed having the biggest problem with the lack of space for proper handling of objects (less than a third of the surveyed museums consider that they have sufficient space for safe object handling). The next big issue is securing shelves and objects against falling (only 37% of the museums have securely attached shelves).

The problem of collection (mis)management
The issue of collecting policy is related to the problem of museum storage rooms. Unfortunately, even though the still effective Ordinance on professional and technical standards mandates it, 68% of the surveyed museums have not yet adopted a written collection policy statement.

Annual collection growth shows the increasing pace at which a museum fills up the available storage spaces. Most museums (27%) report annual growth of up to 50 objects. Next are the museums that acquire up to 10 objects (20%), followed by museums that collect up to 500 items per year (18%). Eight museums declared collection growth of more than 1,000 objects per year, one of them acquires from 1,000 up to 10,000 museum objects per year. Museums that deal with archaeological collections highlighted having difficulty with expressing the total sum of museum objects.

It is alarming that 69% of the museums do not deaccession a single item in a year, especially when we consider the annual collection growth. Among the museums that do deaccession, the majority (18%) permanently removes only up to 5 objects per year. When it comes to the amount of collection on view, more than a quarter of the museums have not got a single item from their collection on display. Museums with permanent exhibitions display only about 5% of their entire collection.

Museums use unplanned and improvised spaces for storage purposes that are often located inside historic buildings and equipped for storing museum objects at an elementary level. Museum collections are exposed to danger by hoarding, inability to handle and retrieve items, and lack of equipment that would provide for well-managed storage space. We cannot be satisfied with the current levels of preventive conservation. Several museum storages haven't got any physical or technical security system; many of them are not sufficiently equipped. Not all storage rooms have devices for monitoring microclimate, nor do they have fire protection or flood control system in place.

Croatian museums are affected by the lack of staff (on average, 5,613 objects per one trained staff) and the lack of space (22 museum objects per 1 m²). Over the next ten years, the area of additional space required will be three times bigger than the area currently available. Despite that, the collections keep growing. It is then alarming that museums do not deaccession objects and have only in rare cases implemented collecting policies. Only a fraction of the museum collection is on display on permanent exhibitions—most of it is trapped inside storage rooms and not accessible to the public (and, in some cases, to the museum itself).

This research confirmed that the state in the museums is not changing for the better. Despite the insurmountable financial obstacles, it is crucial to take collection management seriously and start implementing museum collecting policies. Preventive conservation is much cheaper and effective than restoration. That said, we also should not stop warning our founders about the problems we all share. After the Homeland war, recent earthquakes, and floods, we still leave too many things to chance.

(Dunja Vranešević and Ivona Marić, published originally in News from the Museum World 141, 18 May 2021; translated by Ivona Marić)