Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
“You’re going where! In January? Why?” my coworkers and friends exclaimed when I mentioned I’d be going to Denmark.
Well, to act as a courier for 27 photographs we had on loan to an exhibition there!
When one museum wants to borrow material from another museum, there is a lengthy request process involved. Prior to submitting a request to borrow an object, the borrowing institution conducts research to identify potential loans, and considers how they will fit in the exhibition. Once the request is received, the lending institution evaluates the objects to determine if they are robust enough to withstand travel. Transporting a historic artifact any distance – let alone across the ocean – with its attendant changes in climate, movement and jostling, can take a toll. Not all requested artifacts are deemed stable enough to make a long journey, and even those that are often require a courier. The courier is usually a museum’s registrar, curator, or conservator who travels with the artifacts to supervise their care and handling at each step of the journey.
This particular trip was arranged in conjunction with the exhibition Jacob Riis: Revealing how the Other Half Lives, which opened at Museum of the City of New York, continued to Library of Congress in Washington DC, GL Strand in Copenhagen, Denmark, and finally to the Ribe Kunstmuseum in Ribe, Denmark. Not all items could be displayed at all venues, so each venue hosted slightly different versions of the show. MCNY lent 27 photographs to GL Strand in Copenhagen. The Curator of
Prints and Photographs traveled with the exhibition for the installation in Copenhagen. When the exhibition closed in January so that it could continue on to Ribe, Riis’ home town, I went to act as courier to oversee the de-installation in Copenhagen, the journey west, and the installation in Ribe.
The de-installation was straightforward — carefully take the framed pieces off the wall, check their condition against their original condition reports, wrap them, and pack them in their crates. The crates and photos remained in climate-controlled storage at all times.
As Americans, we often have the luxury of working in more contemporary buildings complete with modern amenities such as loading docks and freight elevators. However, GL Strand is housed in a building that dates from 1750. It is located in the oldest part of Copenhagen, with Renaissance era streets. While the building has undergone extensive renovation, the elevator is smaller than those found in most US museums, and several crates barely fit in.
A few did not fit at all, and instead were carefully hand carried down two flights of stairs! Once outside, loading a large truck in these tiny streets was challenging. We began very early in the morning so that we would be finished by the time morning rush-hour came around. The street was obviously not covered, so we had to hope for good weather, not a given in Denmark in January!
The trip to Ribe involved a four hour drive across the country. Jacob Riis was born in Ribe, and lived his early life there. They had not previously had an exhibit about him, so this was a historic event with a lot of excitement!
Upon arrival in Ribe, we unloaded the work from the truck. The streets here were even narrower, since this is, after all, the oldest town in Denmark.
Several of the crates did not fit through a door to the main storage area, so we had to use an auxiliary (also secured and climate controlled) area—needless to say, these heavy crates had to be hand carried into the building—dollies and handcarts do not work well on cobblestones! Once again, I felt spoiled to live in a place with very few cobbled streets, and had not realized what a luxury (from an art handling point of view) that really is. And we were unlucky with a sudden hail storm in the middle of unloading, which led to an unplanned halt to transporting the material into the museum.
It takes 24 hours for items to fully acclimate to their new surroundings inside the crate before they can even be unpacked. While the objects were resting, the crew in Ribe was busy installing the vitrines, hanging text panels, and preparing the space for the artwork to be installed.
On the day of installation, we unpacked everything carefully, and again, the items’ condition was formally checked against their original condition reports. We next began placing matted items in cases, and framed items on the walls. With delicate material such as this, none of it can be on display “unglazed,” meaning without a glass or plexiglass barrier between the exhibition viewers and the pieces. Additionally, all cases must have security alarms, and all photos mounted on the walls must be secured with special security hardware. It takes several days to install even a small show such as this one. Larger exhibitions can take a few weeks to install!
Finally, everything was installed, and the show was ready for its first visitors. Another staff member will travel back to Denmark when the show closes, to shepherd the pieces safely home to New York.