The Aboriginal Memorial is a world traveller. Twenty-two years on, National Gallery conservator Beata Tworek-Matuszkiewicz shares behind the scenes memories from the Memorial's world tour from 1999–2000.
The Aboriginal Memorial's European tour began at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, July – October 1999, then on to the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, November 1999 – January 2000, before joining other works in World of Dreamings: Traditional and Contemporary Art of Aboriginal Australia in the great Nikolai Hall of the Hermitage Palace, St Petersburg, February – April 2000.
During the ten month tour, National Gallery couriers travelled by plane (passenger and cargo), ferry and in special air-conditioned trucks equipped with air-ride suspension. Essential security arrangements ensured safe passage over vast distances. Some 20 staff – curators, conservators, installers and packers – spent nearly four months travelling 46,000 km, crossing nine borders. Returning on the ferry across the Baltic Sea offered time to reflect upon this extraordinary excursion – the hard work, anxiety and excitement. An exhibition is made possible by long and mostly 'invisible' preparation – the technical aspects of organising a touring show and the behind-the-scenes activity remain largely unrecorded.
World of Dreamings took four years to plan and involved approximately 1000 people – from Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Russia, Singapore and Australia. The starting point, a desire to show Aboriginal art to Europe. The idea took shape of a touring exhibition to include major Aboriginal artists, working across traditional and modern techniques.
A preliminary list of 100 works (approximately 600 elements) was prepared by curatorial who made their selection from the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, the National Museum of Australia and public and private collections. Conservators checked these works to assess their suitability. The final selection of 51 works (440 elements) considered artistic value, appropriate geographic representation, and themes. A master list detailed information on every work title, artist's name, dimensions, materials used, techniques, date of production and origin. This became the working document for curators, conservators, designers, workshop staff, installers, photographers, publishers, packers and registration officers.
Conservators examined each object in detail – described the processes of its making, apparent wear and information relevant to its preservation in condition reports. Each report includes photographic documentation, with clear plastic overlays of problem areas.
National Gallery photographers captured detailed black and white photographs for conservation purposes, large colour transparencies for publications, slides for public presentations, as well as digital images for documentation, publication and fast communication over distance. Setting the lights, processing film and producing numerous prints is a long job for which formal recognition is rare, but without it no exhibition could be a success.
All works requiring conservation underwent treatment – surface cleaning and paint consolidation to secure lifting, powdering or flaking paint. Fine brushes or syringes were used to apply special consolidants under each flake. This process could be frustrating or, alternatively, therapeutic! Sometimes it took several days to treat one object.
Treatments were documented and this formed part of the essential information required by the couriers and conservators during the tour. This documentation was used for checking the objects at every stage of their journey, and were the base reference document in case of damage.
Each object must be presented at its best for exhibition and its safety must be ensured. Conservators, curators, designers and workshop technicians spend many hours creating display mechanisms – ‘simple’ hooks or custom-made stands manufactured from appropriate materials, designed to support the object in an effortless, invisible secure manner. Four crates of varying sizes, and weighing a total of some 800 kg, contained tools, materials and display mechanisms. For The Aboriginal Memorial, a special lifting machine was designed and constructed to assist the handling of very large and heavy poles, some weighing more than 100 kg. The machine proved its value at each museum as did the expertise of the National Gallery team. Paintings on canvas were stretched on custom-made stretchers, and paintings on board and works on paper were mounted and framed to specific requirements. Curators prepared texts for exhibition labels, wrote articles for publication and organised translation. Education materials were created to present the works in their cultural context. Merchandise was selected for exhibition shops.
An important part of planning and preparation involves curators, designers, registrars and technicians in the host museums. They provide detailed descriptions of their facilities, the number and size of exhibition spaces, environmental conditions, types of lighting control, and access to exhibition spaces. This information helps to plan movement and safety of the collections. The Hermitage for example, offered no large lifts leading to the relevant exhibition rooms, crates had to be carried up several flights of stairs. On one occasion, when art handlers were exhausted, army personnel assisted in taking empty crates the storage area.
The packing of delicate objects requires great understanding of the works of art, their structure, composition and condition, as well as a detailed knowledge of special packing materials. A great deal of intuition can come into play – which only develops with experience. It took many months to plan and prepare the packing of this exhibition. The objects were grouped by similar medium, size and weight to determine crate dimensions.
In consultation with conservators, packing systems were designed for each object or type of object, depending on their structure and condition. Works on paper were packed horizontally, facing up, in crates with slots housing between five to ten works. Paintings on canvas and board travelled attached to special trays fitted into crates with vertical slots. The paintings were positioned parallel to the travel direction of the trucks and aircraft, minimising the effects of shock and vibration. Bark paintings travelled flat, nested between special, custom-shaped doonas which support the fragile and often distorted bark. The packing of sculptures is more complex, with each piece having its specially designed packing system. The 200 memorial poles travelled in 61 crates, each housing between one and eight poles depending on their size and weight. The poles were placed horizontally in boxes, supported at either end with custom supports. As well as protecting the works against the effects of shock and vibration, the materials used in packing are selected to minimise temperature and relative humidity changes that are so dangerous to wooden objects. Most of the supports were shaped from different types of foam. Soft antistatic fabric is used where there is contact with the surface of the works. Sculptures were secured in position within their packing using straps and Velcro®.
Fully packed, the exhibition comprised 98 crates weighing nearly 13.5 tonnes. The accompanying documentation, weighing over 60kg, was carried by the couriers with the exhibition – 440 condition reports, photography, emergency procedures, installation and handling notes, crate lists and shipping lists organised by number in several large folders.
National Gallery registration staff meticulously planned every aspect of the project, working in close collaboration with curators and conservators as well as fine art shippers across the world. Each leg of the tour involved establishing local contacts, obtaining proposals and quotes, checking truck specifications and their climate control, examining details of plane capabilities and timetables, pallet sizes, ferry timetables. Local agents provided information on road conditions and regulations which frequently complicate the journey. In some European countries weekend truck curfews mean longer journeys.
National Gallery couriers supervise every step of the journey. Their responsibility for the safety of the crates and works of art at all times mean that many hours are spent on airport tarmacs, on trucks, at borders or in seaports, directing the loading of pallets or vehicles. These procedures frequently took place in the middle of the night or early morning regardless of weather conditions.
At each venue couriers supervised and assisted in the packing and unpacking, installation and de-installation of all objects. They checked exhibition spaces prior to opening the crates, making sure that all preparatory work had been done and the conditions are suitable. The order of opening crates and installation is established in collaboration with designers, curators and technicians at each venue and dependent upon the local facilities and conditions.
While our best efforts are directed at successful outcomes for the exhibition, we did not escape the unplanned and unavoidable – a storm on the Baltic Sea, lost personal luggage, food poisoning or local bureaucracy.
Working to tight schedules, in different geographical and cultural settings and complying with unfamiliar work ethics required cultural awareness, patience and mental and physical endurance. The couriers' language skills ranged from English, French, Spanish, Italian, Polish and Russian and proved invaluable in efficient and friendly working, leading to many friendships. Some of these resulting in ongoing professional exchanges and even children's pen pal relationships.
The National Gallery team associated with World of Dreamings felt privileged to have been part of this major project, working in extraordinary museums, with overseas colleagues, exchanging expertise, and participating in the huge international group effort that resulted in a magnificent exhibition.
An extended version of this editorial was first published in Artonview, Spring 2000.