Sunday, March 28, 2021

Museum Exhibitions after Covid

The pandemic has not had many plusses, but it has helped in advancing innovation mostly through technology.  I have written about how art museums, deprived of local visitors and tourists, have come up with online programs that can reach folk across the world. As well as seeking new sources of support museums are looking at how technology can save them money. 

We know there is no substitute for seeing an original work of art so travelling exhibitions will return once museums reopen and new methods are being explored to cut the costs.  The day I started writing this Missive I saw an email from Artnet about the fortune that museums can save just on shipping and courier fees.  They even may be able to have their curator, conservator or registrar supervise a loan virtually thus not only saving money but also keeping their staff where they are needed most.  It is a delicate balance. The negative side is that these trips result in professional development with exposure to institutions, collections, methods and colleagues from around the world that directly benefit the home institution. 

Today, a curator can sit at home and supervise the installation of a loan to an exhibition via Zoom or similar technology. Previously he or she had to be there in person. But first, the work of art had to be sent with a courier to ensure its safe delivery. This meant that the courier stood on the tarmac watching the crate being loaded onto the plane.  He had to have at least a business class seat to be sure to get off the plane first to watch the cargo being taken off the plane and then to the museum.

If the work of art were too large for a passenger plane it had to go on a cargo flight where courier accommodations are less comfortable. Most loans require some trucking and if the distance was long, the trip would  be non-stop with alternating drivers and the courier sleeping in the cab of the truck. Once on site the currier had to be put up in a hotel with a per diem allowance. Then, don’t forget the works must go onto the next venue and home again after the show.  For a large exhibition with loans coming from different sources the transportation costs could easily run to a million dollars!

A personal courier is no guarantee either.  One registrar recalled a courier who watched his crate go on the plane, signed the paperwork – and then missed the flight.  It doesn’t happen often but there can always be snafus in any system.

As I was looking on-line for material for this Missive 99% of what I found was information from transport companies that have their own personal currier services. These companies that specialize in moving exhibitions around the world will surely have to find new ways to function in this digital age.

You know how you can track your package when you order from Amazon or other places.  The museums will have their own systems.  They can use an art logistics app.  Artcheck, which allows for a virtual courier system with transit information, quality check and communications between parties all in one place.  The packing of a work of art can include a tracking device and sensors that transmit movement, temperature, and exposure to light.  Of course, skilled art handlers and a knowledgeable conservator are still necessary on the receiving side to inspect the art and do a detailed check of its condition when the crate is opened. However, this can now be done with the participation and guidance of the home curator through the internet.

It’s a whole new world out there where a decade ago is the ancient past.  It is scary but I find it a fascinating subject that I shall return to.

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