10 Jul 2020

The Loan of a Masterpiece:
Behind the Scenes

As a visitor to an exhibition at Birmingham Museums, it’s possible you haven’t put much thought into how any of the objects came to be there. This isn’t surprising when what happens behind the scenes remains a fiercely guarded secret, protected by a sign on the door reading “No Entry: Installation in Progress”. Hopefully this blog may provide an insight into the logistics required to make an exhibition come together when borrowing artefacts or artworks. 

As one exhibition winds down at the museum, within a matter of days, the installation team will need to begin preparing the space for the next display, repainting walls and moving in custom-built cabinets. In the depths of the museum, our team of technicians labour industriously to produce sets, mounts and frames whilst our conservators work meticulously to prepare objects for display. Yet just a few feet away, on the other side of a series of staircases and locked doors, visitors often remain blithely unaware of all this industry whilst they are sipping coffee in the Edwardian Tearooms. 

Technicians installing artworks around Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

In the last twelve months, over eight hundred objects have been lent to Birmingham Museums Trust for seven exhibitions. We have also lent out a similar number of objects from our own collection to over twenty museums across the globe (as well as an equally sizeable number of long-term loans to UK institutions), allowing the collection to be more widely available to the public. As Loans Registrar, my job is to keep tabs on this sizeable number of loan objects – both on and off the premises. The mechanisms required to move these objects from one place to another – loan agreements, insurance, packing, couriering, shipping, handling, installation – are often very delicate, expensive and complex. 

Loan negotiations between institutions can sometimes drag on for years yet are paramount to ensure the safety of an object. Important factors must be considered such as ‘What type of crate does the artwork need?’, ‘How will it travel, and when?’, ‘Who pays for insurance and shipping?’ (Usually the borrower), ‘What kind of display or hanging mechanisms does it need?’, ‘What kind of security systems are in place – attack-proof vitrines, alarms, guards?’, ‘How about temperature and humidity…?’ 

Shipping artefacts is also a specialist skill, involving the manufacture of bespoke museum-grade crates, a fleet of specialist fine art climate-controlled vehicles, and a timetabling puzzle of delicate and complex shipments with tricky customs procedures. Export licences may need to be obtained for artefacts. In some circumstances, permission for loans needs to be sanctioned at government level. The politics and paperwork can be so complicated that lists sometimes aren’t finalised until a few weeks before an exhibition opens.

Many museums insist that artefacts on loan must travel with a courier. This is a member of staff, who must remain with the object (or at least the crate it is travelling in) every single step of the way. For example, this could be from the moment a sculpture is taken off display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in Gallery 25 for packing to the point at which it is placed into its display case for a temporary exhibition at the Pitti Palace in Florence.

Loan of a bronze sculpture ‘Judith with the Head of Holofernes’ by Agostino Cornacchini from Birmingham to Italy for the exhibition ‘Forged in Fire.  Image1: Sculpture in the crate. Image2: Bronze sculpture on display in Italy. Image 3: Exterior of the Pitti Palace, Florence.
Loan of a bronze sculpture ‘Judith with the Head of Holofernes’ by Agostino Cornacchini from Birmingham to Italy for the exhibition ‘Forged in Fire.  Image1: Sculpture in the crate. Image2: Bronze sculpture on display in Italy. Image 3: Exterior of the Pitti Palace, Florence.

The journey often begins at the crack of dawn when the courier oversees the crate being loaded onto the truck for onward transport. For international loans, artworks can travel as air freight, which means arriving at the airport at least five hours in advance and monitoring the crate being lifted into the belly of the aircraft. If possible, the artwork will be booked on a regular passenger flight, which means the courier can travel with it. If the crate is too large, then space on a freight plane with higher clearance must be booked.

Small items such as manuscripts or books can be carried on a flight as hand luggage, though this will require documentation and possibly extensive questioning at security. Also, the artefact will require its own first-class seat beside the courier! 

Behind the loan of every single object, artefact or artwork it is worth remembering that there is an intricate logistical web, permitting museums around the world to share their collections as widely as possible for all to see. Therefore, next time you pay a visit to an exhibition, take a closer look at the discreet credit label, which may be fixed to a wall or beside a display case. This will give you a hint of where an artwork might have travelled from and the potential loan orchestration involved!