Digital object-based information for touring exhibitions – The value of consistency in process



May 24, 2021

by Clair Battisson, Senior Conservation Project Manager, and Louise Egan, Conservation Coordinator

From a touring exhibition and loan perspective, the Covid-19 pandemic has compelled museums and institutions to rapidly rethink traditional processes when touring objects. Taking into account sustainability, costs and continuing travel restrictions, what was previously assumed as standard procedures are now under review. One aspect for reconsideration appears to focus on the inability to send couriers to assist in installs/deinstalls with the solution concentrated on the need of a virtual courier presence for the majority of objects, and on the technology which enables this process. However, we believe this focus is misdirected.

For large touring exhibitions, having regular live communication is not practical when dealing with several hundred objects in venues where erratic internet connection, different time zones, or indeed the scale of the exhibition being installed/deinstalled in a very limited time frame can present further issues.

For over five years, Clair Battisson and Louise Egan have developed, trialled and tested a digital interactive Supporting Documentation package for touring exhibitions. Because the Supporting Documentation package predates the pandemic and was an established process for touring exhibitions, the Victoria and Albert Museum was in the fortunate position of being able to react immediately when it came to touring large-scale multi-material exhibitions to international venues without couriers. The digital Supporting Documentation package contains all relevant object information along with interactive links to additional guidance via text/image/video-based information, with the emphasis on:

  • Excellent and clear lines of communication
  • Excellent and relevant guidance documentation
  • Preparatory workshops given to the borrowing venues ahead of a shipment arrival
  • An element of trust which outweighs any possible risk, enabling smooth transition and negating the expectation on couriers to be virtually present – a saving of staff time and facilitating a smoother install/deinstall

Prior to Covid-19 the Supporting Documentation package was downloaded to touchscreen tablets and workshops provided for V&A couriers before their trip. While courier trips are curtailed, we send the digital package via encrypted storage devices provided by V&A IT (ensuring all information is GDPR compliant) and, where this is unviable due to customs regulations in particular countries, we send it as a Large File transfer using a secure file sharing platform. We provide workshops for the borrowing venues prior to each remote install/deinstall so the external team are aware of the digital object-information package they will get and are confident in how to use it. As the exhibition tour progresses, any information amendments are updated by us to ensure the digital package is up-to-date at every stage of the tour. During current travel limitations the V&A Exhibition team ensures that the Museum is available throughout the remote install/deinstall and is at hand to provide support to the borrowing venue whenever necessary via a specified communication structure.

It should also be stated that although a paramount objective of the digital Support Documentation package is to provide easy-to-use intuitive access to comprehensive information, there is a substantial amount of planning, management and preparation involved in providing such an accessible end product. In order to establish this way of working it was necessary to promote behavioural change which could produce fit-for-purpose information for external venues who were not familiar with the objects and where English was not always a first language.

Figure 1. A section of a traditional touring Condition Report (one object) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Where traditionally emphasis has been on the condition report (Figure 1), we now endeavour, through workshops and meetings across the V&A project team, to promote a democratisation of all object documentation, encouraging generic install and packing methods where possible.1 Along with the relevant object information, the digital interactive Support Documentation (Figure 2) also contains interactive links to each object’s:

•              Condition Report

•              Condition Report images

•              Handling Notes

•              Lender Condition Reports

•              Crate Packing Notes

•              Object Packing Notes/Videos

•              Install/Deinstall Notes/Videos

•              Lender-agreed Wear & Tear Documents

•              Prop Inventories

•              High resolution image reference of objects (on display at V&A)

Figure 2. A section of a current exhibition interface enabling interactive digital access to all object-based information (several hundred objects) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

We ensure these documents are clear, unambiguous, consistent and correct at every stage of the tour. This entails checking and cross-referencing across all information provided by each member of the project team before the exhibition leaves the V&A and updating this information as necessary while the exhibition is on tour. This ensures all relevant parties have access to accurate information from the first install to final object dispersal.

As previously mentioned, we have been using this process for over five years and have trialled it on successive V&A touring exhibitions. It is a great accomplishment to see this process successfully implemented during the current travel limitations and is exciting to see how this way of sharing information can contribute to more progressive and informed ways of working.

References

Battisson, C. and Egan, L. ‘Back to the Future: revisiting Richard Redgrave’s condition reports’, V&A Conservation Journal Number 64 (2017)

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