Museums Nationwide Struggling with Chronic Shortage of Storage Space

The yomiuri Shimbun
The repositories at Akita Prefectural Museum are filled with items and artifacts collected and those donated by residents.

Museums across the country have been troubled by a chronic shortage of storage space for their collections. The primary cause is that local residents continue to donate artifacts, while museums do not have the financial resources to expand their storage capacity.

In some cases, museums have no choice but to store items in conditions with inadequate temperature and humidity controls, jeopardizing their mission of “passing many materials over to future generations.”

Namahage masks, farm equipment, stuffed animals and the like fill shelves at the Akita Prefectural Museum repositories, with some of the collections, artwork and artifacts pushing the storage to its limit.

When the museum opened in 1975, it had about 28,000 items in its collection, but now the number has increased about sevenfold to 190,000.

Every year, it accepts approximately 1,000 items from residents and others, and these kinds of donations make up some 70% of the collection. Many elderly people offer to donate items when they have no family members to pass them on to or when they leave their homes and move out of the prefecture.

To prevent the collected items from deteriorating, the museum keeps them in a storage room with a temperature of 20 C and humidity between 60-65%.

However, the museum has not been able to keep up with tasks like sorting the items and creating an inventory. Some of the collections are kept in the cardboard boxes.

Michio Shinbori, 53, a chief curatorial specialist at the museum, complained, “Ideally, we should build a new storage facility. We have informed the relevant section of the prefectural government about the current situation, but it seems difficult as far as the budget is concerned.”

The Museum Law stipulates that the main roles of museums are to collect, store, and exhibit items and to study and conduct research on them. Following the law, many museums, in principle, accept as many donated items as possible and do not dispose of materials they take in.

According to the fiscal year 2019 survey taken by the Japanese Association of Museums, among the 2,314 museums that responded to the survey, 57.2% of them said that their “storage facilities are almost full” or that they “have materials that cannot be put into the storage facilities,” up about 10% from the previous survey taken six years before.

Besides that, 27.2% of the museums responded that they have storage space set up outside the museum. Some museums have even made effective use of school buildings that have closed down, but school facilities are deemed unsuitable for storing stuffed animals or old documents, as they are not equipped with facilities to keep the temperature and humidity constant.

At Hiratsuka City Museum in Kanagawa Prefecture, its storage facility has been almost at capacity for the past 10 years or so, but it continues to accept donated items, because there are cases where the value of an item can be ascertained in the future, even if its rarity cannot be confirmed at present.

For example, a piece of metal found in a local river and donated to the museum in 2004 was identified seven years later as a harness that dated back to the Kamakura period (late 12th century to 1333), making it an item designated as important cultural property for the city.

Kiyotomo Kawabata, 55, acting director of the museum, said, “It is the fate of a museum to see an increase in the number of items in its collection. To begin with, we want more people to know about this situation.”