Summer 2006 Issue 53
Planning the packing for a touring exhibition
The Packing Team, part of the V&A's Technical Services Section consists of myself and eight technicians. The team is responsible for packing all objects that go out on loan from a single item to a complete touring exhibition. This article focuses on the complex set of issues that need to be taken into consideration when planning the packing of a major multi-venue exhibition such as 'Palace and Mosque'.
Claire Thompson's article explains how the content of an exhibition is developed. At an early stage (a year in advance) representatives from Technical Services are consulted on the feasibility of shipping larger, more complex objects such as the seven metre high mosque pulpit or Minbar (1050-1869), the packing of which is discussed in the accompanying article by Phil Sofer. Approximately six months prior to departure when the object lists are nearly (but never quite) finalised, the planning of the packing begins. As a manager the task ahead is to get the right resources in place for the scheduled packing time.
To reserve the right number of people with the right skills, equipment and materials is never an easy task, even in a large museum, particularly as these technicians are also in demand for their mount-making and object installation skills and may also be acting as couriers.
Faced with the big list of objects (120 in 'Palace and Mosque') that comprise a travelling exhibition, one is confronted with the daunting task of satisfying a number of conflicting demands all at once. The most complex part of this preparation is often determining the number and size of the packing crates that will be required. At this initial planning stage it is important to keep an overview of the whole project. Most objects can be subdivided into a few basic categories for example, large 3-D, small 3-D, framed work, and perhaps some specialist categories such as rolled textiles, costumes on mannequins, or room set panels. By dividing up the initial list and developing a general strategy for each type, a rough time estimate can follow and resources can be quantified. This information is also required by colleagues who are, for example, planning the shipping, costing the tour and liaising with venues.
Exhibition organisers may present you with a further set of complications that arise from the legal side of exporting artworks. Objects may contain materials covered by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) such as ivory, tortoiseshell or coral and will require licences for travel. It is helpful if these objects are grouped together so that only one shipment is affected by this paperwork. There may be requests to keep the insurance values of split shipments roughly equal. This often works itself out without too much difficulty but a group of small, very high value objects, which may fit nicely into one crate, can skew these figures. If all this wasn't complex enough different venues may want to reconfigure the exhibition adding and subtracting objects, therefore those returning earlier need to be crated separately. All these concerns mean that drawing up the crate specification can be far from simple. The best approach is to accept that such a document will undergo several drafts, early versions of which will contain significant gaps where information is still to be confirmed. These early documents are worth circulating however, especially to the transport agent, as it helps them with their scheduling and ordering of materials.
For V&A tours, crates are usually constructed by the transport agent but may also be hired or made in-house. For a large exhibition the crate specification will generally be required six to eight weeks before the first crate is to be delivered. This document details the following:
- General construction standards of crates: whether painted, require runners for pallet truck access etc.
- The number of crates required with internal dimensions and the objects they are for.
- Any internal linings, foam, Plastazote® battens etc, plus any internal boxes or trays to be supplied.
The first set of decisions that need to be resolved concern the physical space objects will require when travelling. Will objects travel upright or flat? Will objects be taken apart for travel? Will costumes stay on their mannequins? What will be the dimensions of travelling rollers or picture frames? Questions like these are not always as straightforward as they sound. At this planning stage many objects are still being conserved and will not be in their final shape for exhibition. This is an ideal time to get involved in decision-making and discuss how objects are best configured for the purpose of travelling, handling, display etc. In return conservators will advise on where objects are physically vulnerable and how they are best handled. Transport agents can also provide useful information on how they dealt with similar projects and what worked well.
Given a free hand I would always prefer to pack like with like, for example crating frames of similar sizes together or key cutting contoured spaces in foam filled trays for small 3-D objects. This approach generally saves on packing time, volume and number of crates (and therefore cost). A touring exhibition of around 70 crates may need to be packed in two and a half weeks. For a show of mixed objects, I would estimate that a team of six technicians can pack one crate each from scratch per day. Obviously complex 3-D objects take longer to pack and handling heavy objects will require several technicians at once so this will need factoring into the estimate. Touring objects also require a certain amount of supporting material to go with them for example, hanging systems, book cradles, mannequins, acrylic mounts and even specialist toolkits. Many of these will only materialise in the last few weeks and need to have their dimensions estimated, therefore it is often more practical to have a dedicated fittings crate that also contains the condition reports and packing notes.
The final point to anyone trying to find their way through this maze is not to lose sight of the fact that your first priority is towards the physical wellbeing of the objects. In the end you may not have met every administrative demand but the key issue is that the packing offers the right degree of physical protection from the potential dangers of travel.