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An Exhibition Doesn’t ‘Just Happen’

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Drew Oliver describes the inter-departmental collaboration needed to put on a museum exhibition.

Drew Oliver







Figure 1: 45 Artefacts
LeBreton Flats Archeological Collection, City of Ottawa.
Photograph Graham Iddon, Copyright 2010 Bytown Museum.
Image source


Drew Oliver, Ottawa

The public face and prime draw of most galleries and museums are their exhibits. Much of the internal work that takes place within these institutions revolves around bringing these projects to life.


As anyone working in a museum or gallery can tell you, exhibitions do not “just happen.” The process is complex, costly and time consuming, and the most successful ones are the end result of months, if not years, of thought, planning, coordination, and collaboration among multiple disciplines within a gallery or museum – most of which takes place behind the scenes and away from the eyes of the viewing public.


Amongst other things, the Curatorial and Exhibition departments are responsible for the content and experience of an exhibition, so when a visitor explores an exhibition their contributions are immediately evident. However, the public never sees much of the other behind-the-scenes work, including what is done by the Collections Department.


So what role does Collections play in the exhibition development process?


Put simply, if an exhibition includes objects, borrowed or otherwise, then Collections will be involved. The specific role of Collections in developing exhibits will differ between institutions, but the department’s prime focus will always be on the safety and security of the objects.  Particularly, the suitability of the objects proposed for exhibition based on their condition and their vulnerability to the stresses of display.


If an institution is borrowing objects, the importance and scope of Collections’ role greatly increases. Moreover, the larger the exhibition and the more lenders that are involved, the more complicated and intricate the process becomes. Add in private collectors and/or travelling exhibitions and the level of complexity increases – making good collections management processes all the more important.


In order to obtain an object on loan for an exhibition, the borrower will have to make certain guarantees to the lender, mostly detailing how the objects will be cared for and secured during the loan period. The Curatorial department will typically initiate discussions with potential lenders and then will negotiate the terms with the assistance, recommendations and consultation of Collections staff.


Once the terms have been defined, Collections are responsible for drawing up the loan documentation as well obtaining the required signatures from the lenders.(1) This often proves to be more laborious than the negotiations themselves and can lead to last minute internal debate, as Collections should not allow any object to be placed on display without the required signatures demonstrating the lenders’ consent.


Also to be negotiated and orchestrated are the object’s packing, pick-up or delivery, travel and insurance needs. Depending on the type of object, destination(s) and manner of transport, there are a host of things that Collections may need to take into account, including: governmental and customs regulations; legislation and permits; specialised insurance; and, security procedures which can vary greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, particularly for cultural property and natural history specimens. These are extremely important details that must be understood and organized well ahead of time to avoid significant delays.




Figure 2: Educational Coordinator, Alysa Procida, preparing an exhibition panel for mounting
© Peek inside the Museum of Inuit Art, Blog
Image Source



The actual packing and shipping of borrowed objects only takes place once all the documentation has been finalised and received. The fragility of the objects, the type and length of travel and even the material composition of each object must be taken into consideration to ensure that everything arrives in good condition. Collections will often assist with the packing and may travel with the objects or arrange for a courier.


In a typical exhibition, each object is subject to a condition report prior to shipping and again immediately after being received by the institution. As one can imagine, the number, size and scope of the objects received can often result in days or weeks of nothing but condition reporting.


A representative from the lender may be present during this time. It is important to note damage that was incurred in transit versus damage that may occur later during the exhibition period for insurance purposes. Assent and sign-off from the lender or their representatives on the initial condition reports as written by the Collections staff establish clearly documented condition issues and a timeline for when the damage occurred.  


These reports are used as comparison documents to track the condition of the objects throughout the duration of the exhibition and, for objects from the internal collection, can be used as a baseline for condition checks in the future.


Once all parties have agreed with the stated condition of the objects, Collections will provide the Exhibitions team with any special object requirements prior to installation, such as environmental considerations and stability or mounting concerns. Both Exhibition designers and Collections staff should have a thorough knowledge of acceptable materials for a safe exhibition environment.


At the end of an exhibition there is often a sense of finality across a museum or gallery and a sigh of relief for a job (hopefully) well done. However, for Collections, there is still a great deal of work to be done. As the exhibition is dismantled and the objects removed, the condition reporting process begins once again. Any damage that has occurred over the course of an exhibition must be reported immediately, and if necessary, insurance claims initiated. The packing and shipping process also re-commences and all paperwork and legislative issues must again be addressed.


A job well done for Collections is when all the borrowed objects in an exhibit are returned safely and all paperwork is received in good order.




Figure 3: Grand Hall of the Canadian Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa,
with the largest indoor collection of totem poles.
Image Source Museum website




NOTES:



1.      Within Collections, the registrar is the person in charge of managing the loan documentation.