We are now lending more of the collection than at any other point in the Museum’s history, enabling more people than ever before to encounter the wide range of material culture that the Museum has in its care. Objects of all types, and of all shapes and sizes are being seen beyond the confines of Bloomsbury, but how does this happen? How does a two ton sculpture or a delicate piece of jewellery find itself transported from London halfway around the world?
Every month objects from our collection leave the Museum travelling far and wide. Often the preparation for such journeys begin months or even years in advance of an exhibition’s opening. Whether the exhibition is to be held in a museum on the other side of London or on the other side of the world the logistics behind transporting fragile objects requires careful planning. Before leaving the British Museum all objects must be assessed by our conservators to see whether or not they are stable enough to travel, and, if they are particularly fragile we have to decide what needs to be done in order to transport them safely. A detailed photographic record is made of each object so that its condition can be carefully monitored as it journeys from London to its intended venue. Our photographers also create stunning, high quality images of each object which will be used to illustrate the exhibition catalogue and other publicity material promoting the exhibition. Our curators write or contribute towards the accompanying text for the catalogue, information panels, and object labels helping to tell the individual stories of each artefact, setting them in the relevant context of the exhibition’s theme. Our museum assistant and heavy object handling teams make the individual mounts which are used to support the objects while on display, and they will also attend to the careful packing which ensures each object reaches its destination safely. Parallel to all this activity there’s plenty of communication passing back and forth between the shipping agent, the borrower, and the British Museum as our project team liaise with all partners in order to ensure the exhibition is a success.
When it comes to preparing our objects for transportation and display all aspects are done by hand. Object mounts and packing are feats of bespoke tailoring. No two objects are alike, not even if they are of the same type. One ancient Greek vase will have repairs in areas where another has none. When crafting mounts or packing an object we always have to begin with a blank sheet on the drawing board. Object mounts are often intricate marvels of exact model-engineering. Clear acrylic is cut and shaped to size, then heated and bent to the appropriate form. The perfect mount is the mount which best supports and safeguards the object, displaying that object in whatever manner the exhibition requires, whilst also remaining as discrete and unobtrusive as possible. Packing materials must also best fit the object. Nearly all categories of object are packed in foam, but foam comes in a variety of types. The appropriate grade or density must be selected; soft enough to cushion the object, but firm enough to give it support. The foam then needs to be cut and shaped around the object, avoiding contact with delicate or protruding areas where such close contact could cause damage, yet sufficiently bedding the object in so that it won’t shift during transport. The factors to be considered and the techniques used are often as varied and unique as the objects themselves; necessarily it is a painstaking and time consuming task. Large and heavy sculptures are often mounted on specially constructed modules for increased safety in both handling and display. Occasionally certain kinds of objects – for instance delicate ivories, such as the Lewis Chessmen – will require special conservation materials to be included in order to maintain steady environmental conditions whilst in transit, and, of course, all objects are wrapped in protective inert materials.
Once on the move the crated objects are escorted at all stages of their journey by British Museum staff. Whether by road, rail, air, or occasionally by sea, our couriers supervise the safe loading and unloading of whatever mode of transport is being used. If a considerable distance must be covered the transportation can often be a long and arduous journey that requires an equal amount of patience and stamina. Travelling at odd hours of the day or night in all weathers, crossing time zones, or, waiting through long hours in airport cargo sheds for customs paperwork to be processed is all part and parcel of the couriers’ role. “A five hour stopover in Azerbaijan!” one courier still marvels of a journey which effectively spanned three very long days.
Once arrived, we work with our counterparts at the exhibition venue, checking the condition of each object in forensic detail as it is unpacked. After which we install the artefacts in their showcases, attending to the final adjustments of display, ensuring that everything is safe and secure, before the exhibition opens to the public.
Working with our colleagues in other institutions is always a mutually rewarding experience, enabling a close collaboration thereby sharing and expanding our skills and knowledge at all levels. Together we can gain a better understanding of material culture through making academic comparisons of our collections side-by-side, but on a practical level we can also learn and share our technical knowledge of different techniques for the safest handling, display, and storage of such objects. Likewise, such collaborations are a way of strengthening international relationships on a variety of different levels. It is a genuinely positive endeavour.
A programme of touring exhibitions enables us all to engage with the past and learn more about the diversity of cultures. It is a way for us to reflect on our world, how it has changed, and how it is changing. It’s about the past and the future as seen from the here and now.Back to top