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Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Lapworth Museum of Geology - shortlisted for Museum of the Year - has used innovative visible storage to transform archive spaces

Posted by Rianna Newman | June 19, 2017 | Facilities

The Lapworth Museum of Geology is a major geological museum run by the University of Birmingham. Named for Charles Lapworth, an English geologist, the museum houses over 250,000 specimens as well as geological maps, equipment and photographs. In 2012 the Lapworth was awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund development award to plan for expansion and modernisation of its facilities, located within a Grade-II* listed building on campus in Edgbaston. “The plan involved changing the Lapworth from a very academic university museum into a public access museum located on campus,” said director Jon Clatworthy. “A total redevelopment was required, opening up the collections and not just focusing on the front of house. We wanted to make the stores more accessible too.”

It gives a sense of privilege going behind the scenes

Museum Stores at Saturation Point

With Birmingham-based Associated Architects on board to oversee the design process, Clatworthy and his team searched for a suitable partner to optimise the stores. “Items were mounting up – objects were piling up, on top of one another, and there was a real danger of damage to the collection,” said Clatworthy. “The only way we could house everything was by improving efficiency.” Crucially, the museum required a company with the experience of creating open, visible storage, in order to meet the requirements of the museum and its funders. “Bruynzeel Storage Systems offered us the best value solution within our budget.”

Reuse, Recycle, Improve

Faced with a challenging semicircular building, Bruynzeel recommended mobile shelving as the most efficient method to optimise the stores. When planning an upgrade, “I would advise any museum to ensure it has spare capacity,” said Clatworthy. 

The museum was keen to retain the best of the bespoke shelving from its old stores. “During the move, we simply lifted the cabinets out and slotted them into the new mobile system,” said Clatworthy. 

Existing wooden drawers were integrated into the mobile shelving using a range of tailored product solutions. A system was developed whereby trays would be self-supporting even when pulled out to their fullest extent. Insert strips allow the drawers to slide, stop damage to powder-coated steel frames and ensure long-term durability. “Access has been improved immeasurably. For example we have a large fossil fish collection that was previously spread between six separate cabinets. These specimens have been consolidated in one long mobile run, which makes search and retrieval much more efficient. It’s simple for researchers to browse the collection and find what they need.”

Torchlit Tours

Allowing public access to the stores was a ‘must-have’ for the museum when it reopened. Full-panel glass doors were added to the mobile cabinets and drawers were fitted with removable glass lids, so the museum is able to display a portion of its collection in situ without compromising security or preservation.

“Access to the stores has increased considerably,” said Clatworthy. “For example, we were able to run a torchlit tour of the museum stores on Halloween for the general public. This would have been impossible in our old stores! The visitors loved it. It gives a sense of privilege going behind the scenes, but you can only do that if your stores are suitable, otherwise chaos reigns.”  

“We now have a store that is accessible by the general public and the academic community alike.” 

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