Sunday, May 22, 2016

Dismantling an Exhibition

Stories about exhibition installation are written fairly often but rarely about dismantling them.

For the last 10 months the Ralph T. Coe Foundation has had an exhibition representing about 10% of the collection legacy left by the late curator and director Ted Coe.  As a matter of fact, I wrote about it when “Connoisseurship and Good Pie” was installed at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, but the closing of a show is a sadder event and, therefore, usually ignored.

Taking it down sounds so easy but logistically it is not.  You cannot just turn up throw 200 works of art into your car and drive back to the Foundation.  It takes a lot of planning so that it is done in as orderly and timely manner as possible.  When an exhibition comes down a new one inevitably goes up so as welcome as you may have been, the institution now wants you out of there as expeditiously as possible.

Installation tool box for installation crew for the next show
and the table with soft wrap for packing up

If you do not have a large staff at your institution, it is helpful to have lined up some volunteers and, in this case, I was one of them.  Someone has to head the operation and keep track of everyone involved in the process in order to avoid errors.  In this case it was the Coe’s Curator and Executive Director, Bruce Bernstein, with the help of Assistant Curator, Bess Murphy.

Shortly before D-day that is de-installation day I received the following lengthy memo from Dr. Bernstein:  [my commentary appears between brackets in blue]

“Wheelwright De-Install
Everyone is working in teams: our objective is to safely finish taking all of the collections to the Coe Foundation on Thursday [Altogether the Coe teamp totaled 6).  Please do not deviate from planning without consulting Bruce.  The plan is designed to control object movement and tracking.  Please keep your hands clean, no dangling jewelry, no sharp edges.  Pencil only [On the theory that pencil can be erased should it accidentally get on an object].  Please remember we are handling irreplaceable art objects.  Work carefully and methodically to avoid problems.  Wheelwright will remove Plexiglas  [The objects were shown with plexi sheets in front of the cases].  We have catalog information with an image on small labels.  Place labels in cases with objects.  Some objects have mounts, consult only Bruce or Bess about which mounts return to the Foundation [The Museum had supplied some of their own blocks and mounts which we could not take with us].  We will try to mark which mounts return to Foundation.  There are several large objects; these will be last moved.  We will work in exhibition order, starting in the introduction and moving clockwise; if there is a question about which case is next, ask Bruce or Bess.

Volunteer John Whitman and President of the Coe, Rachel Wixom
watch Bruce Bernstein and Bess Murphy wrapping a larger object

Move your table close to the case.  [Packing had to be done on a flat surface on which to place the wrapping to be used] Place the object on the table. Soft wrap the piece.  Any questions about packing, ask Bruce.  (We will review packing before we begin) [Soft wrap means not using a box or crate but just tissue and soft non-abrasive materials].  On the outside of the wrapping place the sticker [which was placed in the case earlier] with the proper catalog information.  If there is a mount with the object: write the object number on a small white sticker and stick to it to the bottom of the base of the mount.  The mounts can be packed with their object –same, putting the mounts in first!  But ideally we will put the mounts to the side and move them in a single box.  For security and to not let things sit in the sun, we will pack a truck’s worth and then load the truck.  As you carry a tray out the door, Gerald [Yours truly] will check the piece off the inventory.  Place the tray on the truck deck. Gerald is inventory control [The catering trays with their wrapped art begin to be assembled at the door].

At the Coe Foundation we will unload the truck.  Since we have a limited number of trays they need to be unloaded and the wrapped objects placed on the waiting carts and tables. 
Return to Wheelwright, repeat.”

Rachel Wixom, watching over the first truck-load of art
before its departure for the Foundation

These rules gave a structure to those who had not done or had been directed differently elsewhere.   As we went along we found little things that still needed to be improvised but it all went amazingly smoothly as we worked around the museum staff that was removing the plexi fronts to the cases and getting ready for the next show by removing painted wooden blocks from the cases and piling them together so that they could be used as needed for the next round.

Of course, when all the art arrived at the Coe Foundation it had to be unwrapped.  As I sat there beginning to un-twirl tissue from the objects, a visiting curator walked in and said, “It’s like Christmas, isn’t it”.  Yes, that was exactly the feeling each piece of tissue that was removed revealed a treasure that had come home again.

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