One of the many advantages of working as a conservator in a small museum is that we get to act as courier for objects approved for loan. Curators and conservators share the task of accompanying objects to and from borrowing institutions.
Whilst it is a pleasure to get to visit exhibitions in different countries, much responsibility comes with being a courier. The objects must be handled safely in transit, delivered securely and installed following best practices, all as set out in the loan agreement made between the Chester Beatty Library and the borrowing institution.
The Library recently lent two Indian miniatures from the Islamic collection to The Getty Museum in Los Angeles. These two items are part of the exhibition Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India (13 March – 24 June, 2018). They are Awrangzib as a Young Prince, c.1640-45 (CBL In 41.3) and Jujhar Singh Bundela Kneels in Submission to Shah Jahan, c.1630 (CBL In 07.16).
To facilitate this loan, the conservation team carried out an initial condition check on the pieces. Once the loan was approved by the Trustees, the conservation team began work preparing the objects for travel. We checked the paint layer under magnification for pigment losses and fragile areas which could require consolidation prior to travelling. Thankfully, the two Indian miniatures were in good condition so no conservation was required.
After this the registrars, curators and conservators of both institutions discussed the mounting of the folios. It was agreed that the Getty conservation team would provide us with two frames and mount boards to remount and frame our miniatures.
When this was ready we created a thorough condition report for each object, detailing the present condition of the artwork including the support and paint layer. These reports are an essential part of the lending process as they will stay with the objects throughout the borrowing period. High quality photographs accompany the condition reports. This documentation helps with checking for any changes in the condition of the objects during transportation, exhibition and finally on return to the Chester Beatty Library at the end of the loan period.
Packing the objects in a protective crate is essential before travel. We have a number of crates of different sizes that we use for loans. They are lined with thick layers of plastazote foam and the framed objects are securely packed on trays made of the same material. We pack the objects in a logical manner and photograph each layer individually. It is essential to record the packing process as it makes the repacking of the object on de-installation much faster and easier for the courier and the art handlers.
A few days before I travelled, the registrar and I double checked that I had all the required documentation. On the day, the best advice I can give is to wear comfortable and warm clothing. It is always a long day, most of which is spent in transit. With the Getty loan I was met by the art handlers at 9.30am in the conservation studio. They moved and secured our packed crate to their climate-controlled art-transport truck, designed to protect artworks from vibrations on the journey.
We then drove to the cargo area at the airport when we met our trusted agent to oversee the palletisation of the crate. The cargo area is a large warehouse busy with workers and forklifts. The crate is weighed and X-rayed before it is moved onto a large aluminium aircraft pallet where staff from the cargo area strap it securely into place and cover it with polyethylene sheeting.
As the courier, it is my responsibility to ensure the crate is locked in place and not sharing a pallet with freight that could be hazardous in nature. I recorded the pallet number and on this occasion I asked the staff to apply extra polyethylene sheeting as the pallet would be waiting on the tarmac for some length of time, and Irish weather can be unpredictable.
Once palletisation was complete, I then proceeded through check in, security and U.S. customs. The agent stayed on the ground with the crate until it was loaded on the plane. I did not board the plane until it was confirmed that the crate was on-board by our agent. By the middle of that afternoon both myself and the crate were on route to L.A.
11 hours later, the plane landed and I was met at the arrival gate by the American transportation agent who took me to the cargo area. Access to such restricted areas has been tightly controlled since the early 2000’s, so at this time another agent was present on the tarmac to oversee the moment the pallet is removed from the plane.
We arrived at the cargo area at around 7.30pm and at this point it was my job to wait (courier duties aren’t all glamourous). At about 8pm, something happened that is absolutely unheard off in L.A.: it started raining heavily. This was somewhat upsetting having just landed from Dublin! But I was glad I had asked for the extra polyethylene sheeting as my crate was now in need of all the protection it could get.
The pallet arrived at 9pm and I was accompanied to the cargo warehouse to oversee the crate being taken off the pallet and loaded onto the truck where it was strapped in place under my supervision. We finally drove through the city to the Getty museum where I was met by a registrar. The crate was carefully transported from the truck to the exhibition gallery and left in this secure location to acclimatise to its new environment for the next 24 hours.
By the time we signed the necessary paperwork and I got a lift to my hotel it was nearing 11pm local time, and I had been working and travelling for 22 hours.
On a courier trip, there is a certain amount of down time while the objects acclimatise before installation when you should take the opportunity to do some sight-seeing and explore the city. That is certainly one of the perks of being a courier and I took full advantage of it. L.A. has a lot to offer, from amazing museums, great weather, succulent plants growing wild, to great street food, and I tried to make the most of my free time, fighting the jetlag to take it all in.
On installation day I met with the registrar for the exhibition who had also been my point of contact for any emergencies during transportation. She took me to the exhibition gallery where a large table covered with Tyvek and two large standing lamps were set up in the centre of the room for condition checking the objects. Two art handlers were at the ready to open the crate. The glazed frames were placed on the table and thoroughly checked by myself on behalf of Chester Beatty Library and also the manuscript conservator for the Getty Museum. We found no changes had taken place during transport and signed all the relevant paperwork.
The art handlers secured both frames to the wall and they looked incredible in their gilded frames. They were covered with a sheet of brown paper to protect them from light until the LUX levels were adjusted. The crate was then packed, locked and moved to acclimatised storage for the length of the exhibition. The Getty staff were extremely professional and efficient and it was a pleasure working with them.
Once the installation of the two objects was complete I was delighted to get a chance to be shown the book and paper conservation studio. This was a privilege for me and I was very grateful that the conservators took some of their precious time to show me their space and talk about upcoming projects. I finished the day wandering around the superb Getty Museum, looking primarily at manuscript material but enjoying other exhibits and the scenery as well. What a wonderful view over Los Angeles from there!
If you are in Los Angeles or nearby in the U.S., go and see Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India at the Getty Museum, from March 13 to June 24, 2018. It’s well worth it!
Julia Poirier – Book and Paper Conservator