V&A Dundee

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Pack it up: building exhibitions and taking them apart

The time between taking down one exhibition and putting up the next is one of the busiest for our Exhibitions team as they work behind-the-scenes to bring the next show to life. Collections Assistant Helen Pickles talks us through the process.

Like museums all over the world, large-scale exhibitions such as our now closed Ocean Liners: Speed and Style are made possible thanks to the other museums, individuals and institutions that kindly lend us their objects to put on display. Since we don’t have a collection of our own, every object is loaned in and they all have to get here and then make their way back.

The objects on show in our exhibitions can come to us from many places: from a neighbouring Scottish museum to a national in London; from private collections in Europe to an art gallery in New York. There were 55 different lenders to Ocean Liners alone, lending 300 objects in total. This involves a few logistical challenges.

In addition to drafting overall install and de-install schedules, every object has associated transport arrangements, insurance, loan agreements, courier details, packing requirements, conservation assessments and condition reports to organise. All this planning happens many months in advance to ensure that everything is in place for the short window of time we have for the exhibition changeover.

So, once a show is over and hoarding appears where its entrance once was, what’s happening behind it? As soon as those gallery doors close, it begins.

On average, we’ll only have two to three weeks to pack up a show and send everything back. This doesn’t mean wrapping things in bubble-wrap and hoping for the best: to protect the pieces on display, we bring in a team of professional art handlers to take the objects off display and pack them according to museum standards.

Every object is carefully packed into a custom-built wooden shipping crate. These large, sturdy crates are necessary to protect the precious cargo inside from the rigors of travelling back to their destination. They are padded out with conservation grade materials to soften the ride, hold the objects in place and limit the ups and downs of the journey.

This might take a few days, involving a long truck ride to an airport, being loaded onto the hold of an aircraft, the flight itself and then another truck ride before they either get home or arrive at the next stop on their tour.

Before they get packed and transported, the physical condition of the object is checked against the record taken when it arrived. This “condition reporting” step is a really important part of the install and de-install process and it takes quite a bit of time.

We have detailed photos and written descriptions of every object so that we can check its condition at the end of an exhibition and make sure it’s leaving in the same state that it arrived in. Being seen and enjoyed by thousands of visitors, it’s vital that the objects can be experienced by people without suffering any damage.

Once all the objects are out of the gallery and safely on their way, the build contractors take over. It’s their job to remove plinths, internal walls and display cases from one show, and then build the structure of the next exhibition, following the exhibition designer’s plans.

The 1100 square meter temporary exhibition space we have at V&A Dundee, the largest in Scotland, is fully flexible. It’s a blank canvas that can be adapted to suit each particular show, unrecognisable from one exhibition to the next.

This structural part of the changeover takes a few weeks. When the build is finished, the walls painted and dried, and the display cases in place, the installation of the next exhibition can begin.

Installing an exhibition takes more time than the de-install. Objects are often displayed on mounts which show them off at the best angle and orientation for the viewer. Case layout plans are used to work out the correct placement of objects but getting the mount in exactly the right spot takes some fine tuning. Once a hole has been drilled into the back- or baseboard, there’s no going back.

We put objects on plinths, in cases or behind barriers to display them safely, in agreement with the lenders. The reason we have low light levels and regulated temperature and humidity in galleries is to further protect the objects from the environmental factors that we expose them to by having them on display.

Aligning objects perfectly is a skilled job. The dazzling gold leaf floor-to-ceiling wall panel from the first-class smoking room on the Normandie by Jean Dunand is made up of 45 individual panels. Overseen by two couriers, it took a team of four art handlers three days to install.

Couriers from the lending institutions will often travel to the museum with their objects and oversee them being unpacked, condition checked and going on display. If we have a display case containing numerous lender objects, we coordinate the install so that all the couriers are there at the same time to oversee the installation, finish the case, insert labels and then lock the door. Any hold ups with objects and couriers arriving at the museum has a knock-on effect on schedules, so we always have to build in some contingency.

Once the objects are safely installed, the labels and graphics can go up, the lighting is set and display cases are cleaned (for what always feels like the 100th time!) to make sure the exhibition opens in perfect condition.

Working with museum objects requires a huge amount of care and focus, and it’s a real team effort. The hard work and long days are all worth it to be able to showcase fascinating stories and unique objects here in Dundee, in a world class exhibition space.

Helen is the Collections Assistant at V&A Dundee.