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WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Fine Art of Moving Museum Masterpieces Around the World

On any given day, works of art are on the move. Galleries ship pieces to collectors, artists deliver their work to exhibitions, and auction houses sell art to buyers near and far. Art museums, too, play a crucial role in this mass movement when they collect and exhibit art. At most museums, exhibitions draw not only from their own collections, but from the collections of museums around the world.

These inter-museum loans require the aid and expertise of innumerable individuals along the way: shipping brokers, art handlers, crate manufacturers, fine-art truck drivers, and airline cargo crews, to name a few. In addition, the process is managed at the museums themselves by registrars. As the Assistant Registrar at WAM, I work with colleagues across the Museum and across the globe to facilitate incoming loans to our exhibitions, and to share our own collection far and wide.

A look at WAM’s Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere exhibition, which was made possible
through loans from many other museums. This exhibition was organized by the
American Antiquarian Society. Photo by Steve Briggs, WAM Photographer, 2020.

Another view of the Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere exhibition.
Photo by Steve Briggs, WAM Photographer, 2020.

The actual transportation of the art itself is only one step in the process. The work involved in loaning art to or from the Museum begins months or even years before any pieces travel. At WAM, an outgoing loan to other museums begins when we receive a request to borrow a work in our collection that will add great value to another museum’s exhibition. Our Curatorial, Conservation, Exhibitions, Education, and Registration Departments all work together to evaluate loan requests.

We first and foremost need to ensure that the piece will be safe to travel, and that it has not already been reserved for our own exhibitions or programs. If we take something off display for a loan, we need to know that we can fill the space it left behind with something equally poignant, profound, and appropriate for that space. In fact, outgoing loans can be incredible opportunities to highlight pieces in our own collection that are seldom on display.

After the loan is approved, there are many details to discuss with the borrowing institution: Will the work need to be glazed? Framed? Does it require conservation treatment? How will we safely pack and ship the work, and what measurers will the borrowing museum take to ensure it is safe when in their care? These details—and many others—are all spelled out and agreed upon in a loan contract well before the art can travel.

While WAM’s fabulous conservators and preparators work to prepare the piece to travel, I take care of some of the other logistical concerns. In the months before a loan departs, I order the packing crate, organize the shipment details, and coordinate the travel arrangements of any WAM staff we choose to send with the art to watch over it on its journey.

When the time finally arrives, the artwork is carefully packed in its custom-made crate and ready for shipment. The enormous amount of work—mine and others’—that leads to this moment is well worth it. It is a thrill to see WAM’s collection on display at museums around the world, and to know the small part I played in getting it there.

— By Ali Rosenberg, Assistant Registrar
     June 9, 2020

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