IMMA’s collections in crisis

Part of the Tain tapestry series by Louis le Brocquy, one of the works currently suffering from poor storage conditions

A Tain tapestry by Louis le Brocquy, one of the IMMA works suffering from poor storage conditions

IMMA’s storage crisis made the front page of the Irish Times over the weekend, as a report obtained by the IT through Freedom of Information detailed the extent of damage that’s been done to the permanent collection due to inadequate storage facilities. This is the second revelation in recent months of serious mismanagement of national collections (following a damning audit of the National Museum’s collections by the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General). The five-year-old IMMA report, authored by collections curator Catherine Marshall, details buckling of artworks, prints adhering to glass, and bloom appearing on metal sculptures– such damage making the works in storage ‘dangerous to handle’ unless absolutely necessary.

A second piece in the IT continued the IMMA story further:

Imma’s own on-site stores at its home at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (RHK) were crammed with artworks, constituting a serious hazard as they could not be evacuated in the event of a fire and had no proper environmental controls to protect fragile works of art. With well over 1,000 works in its permanent collection by then, the vast bulk was being housed in “temporary” and “interim” warehouses and stores sourced off-site by the Office of Public Works (OPW), none of which were really suitable for storing art.

So critical had the storage situation become that Imma was forced to store works in a shipping container in the car park. The use of the shipping container was described as an emergency solution. But the “emergency” lasted four years. In September 2007, Imma’s director Enrique Juncosa wrote to Sean Benton, the chair of the OPW, again highlighting its storage problems.

“As the store is reaching full capacity,” he wrote, “we have adapted every available space on-site at the Museum for storage and this includes storing items in the car park in shipping containers and giving up some programming areas.”

But the most explosive part of the 2003 document was its “schedule of the curatorial concerns”. It listed 20 artworks that had been damaged as a “direct result of inappropriate environmental conditions in the storage facilities” at Imma. They included works by renowned artists from Ireland and abroad (see panel) including Louis le Brocquy, Dorothy Cross, Georges Braque, Basil Blackshaw, Colin Middleton, Shane Cullen, Terry Atkinson and Stephan Balkenhol.

And if a front page story and follow-up article weren’t enough in the Saturday issue, an editorial poured more fuel on the flames, though it points the finger at government neglect as opposed to internal museum mismanagement:

What is shocking is that the problem has been allowed to go on for so long. The museum has had to resort to quite primitive measures – the use of shipping containers in the grounds has a Third World touch to it. And the report indicating damage to 20 artworks as a “direct result of inappropriate environmental conditions in storage facilities” is utterly deplorable […] Like the national archives, this should be an issue of public concern and those who knew of the problem would have done better, even if it was not politically expedient, to have been more public in raising the alarm.

All three pieces cite the ongoing struggle with the Royal Hospital building and its inadequacies as an exhibition and collections space– a complaint that’s been ongoing since the museum opened in 1991.

As with the National Museum, the gap between current funding levels and facility needs has been highlighted by the museum itself as the root of the problem. Some blogosphere commentators have contradicted this assertion, claiming that IMMA’s resources have been inappropriately diverted to superfluous outreach programmes instead of essential collections maintenance. However the museum must fulfill its remit to the public as well as its obligations as a collecting institution, and indeed IMMA has been at the forefront of outreach and education in the Irish museum sector– hardly achievements one would wish to see diminished.

Yet yesterday’s leak of Dept of Finance correspondence in the IT, hinting at a proposed merger of three national institutions (IMMA, the Crawford and the National Gallery) as a cost-saving measure, hardly inspires confidence that the solution will be found in greater resourcing. Certainly I agree with the IT editorial on one point: unless the serious problems afflicting our national institutions are brought to the attention of a wider public, and political pressure is brought to bear on those responsible for ensuring adequate support, the situation will only worsen.

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