I was greatly amused by Maev Kennedy's "Insider" column in the latest Museums Journal. In it, Kennedy is critical of the recently-opened Darwin Centre at the NHM for being "as mysterious as a sock drawer." Her argument is that a sense of mystery is a critical factor in the appeal of museums and their collections; remove this, and you remove part of their ability to stimulate the imagination. As the regular reader of this blog will know, I'm all in favor of increasing the accessibility of collections, but she may have a point. One reason why people respond so enthusiastically to collection tours given by my colleagues and I is that we don't do them very often; there is magic in seeing something that most people will never get to see.
Kennedy's critique, of course, is aimed more at the building itself, which apparently lacks the Gormenghastian qualities of darkness, decay, secrecy, and impenetrability that she feels all good museums should possess. I think we can safely jettison this ideal. Having worked in some spectacularly "atmospheric" museum spaces, I have yet to find one in which "atmosphere" wasn't closely associated with ruinous damage to both collections and collections staff. The fact is that modern collections storage is stark, brightly lit, and hopefully clean and free from clutter. The mystery lies in the collections themselves. In twenty years of working with natural history specimens, I have never failed to be surprised - and usually in a good way - by the things you find when you open up a cabinet. If we can convey that to the public, then I think we'll have done a good thing.