On a recent trip to Bath I was interested to see a small exhibit in the ceramics display in the Victoria Art Gallery: a case full of broken objects. The case comes at the end of the small gallery full of delftware, radiant lustreware, packs of Staffordshire dogs and more modern studio ceramics. It showcases items from the collection which are in a state of disrepair and would not normally be on display. As well as making an effective case for donations, I thought this simple display was a wonderful way of making visible the work that needs to go on behind the scenes to care for and preserve the city’s collections.
For each item there was a detailed description of the work that needs to be done, and the cost of paying a skilled conservator to do it. This lets potential donors know exactly where their money is going, as well as helping people feel more invested in the work of the gallery. It also serves to educate visitors a little about conservation methods, since it explains that old repairs can sometimes be detrimental to the stability of objects, and continuing work needs to be done to preserve them as new techniques become available. This is pertinent at a time when there is a lot of talk of museums hoarding away stored collections, as if stores are a treasure trove of priceless things that should all be on display. This exhibit is a window to the world of unloved and un-pretty objects which museums have a duty to store and care for, and the time, effort and money needed to do this.