See what's hiding in storage at the Grand Rapids Public Museum

Jan 6, 2014

Collections Curator Alex Forist at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
Credit Nancy Camden

At the Grand Rapids Public Museum, only ten percent of the nearly quarter of a million objects are on exhibit at any one time. The rest of the collection is carefully archived in a couple-hundred-thousand square feet of space.

The museum began in 1854 as the Grand Rapids Lyceum of Natural History, a collection of artifacts brought from trips of residents who traveled and brought back artifacts from around the world.

“People who grew up in Grand Rapids fondly remember visiting the museum and through the museum being able then to visit the whole world,” says Alex Forist, Collections Curator.

One of the elements that deteriorates objects is light. So, at the museum, the collections are kept in darkness to minimize damage. There is also a pest management system for bugs and mice.

“Perhaps the most important thing is the temperature and humidity,” says Forist. “We actively maintain, more or less, 70 degree Fahrenheit temperature in about a 40 percent relative humidity in here because that is the best way we can keep the wide variety of different materials stable.”

Another important aspect of preservation is security. There are motion detectors and 24-hour security guards on patrol, as well as special access cards for staff. Hundreds of items are brought into the collection each year. In the processing room, objects are cleaned, repaired and photographed.

“Each object will get a very fine, written on it an accession number,” says Forist. “It’s done in a way so that it’s totally reversible but, it won’t easily come off. So, that you can quickly pick up any object in storage and find that number to identify it.”

The furniture collection is one of the highlights of the museum with several thousand pieces of furniture. Five hundred or more furniture companies called Grand Rapids home at one time or another. 

The material at the Grand Rapids Public museum is open to the public through regular tours of the storage areas.