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From Dinosaurs to Space Shuttles: How Museums Pack and Ship Priceless Art

Sue the Dinosaur has travelled the globe. As the best preserved, most complete and largest Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil archeologists have ever discovered, she remains in high demand throughout the world’s finest natural history museums. While her home remains the Chicago Field Museum, Sue’s prehistoric visage has been seen by dinosaur enthusiasts in places like Australia, Japan, Kuwait, and Venezuela. But how?

How does a 12.8 metre-long Cretaceous beast make its way across oceans and continents? After all, its head alone weighs a whopping 272 kilograms. And that’s not the only massive and priceless piece of art to travel the world. Museums’ most precious items—from Sue’s fossil to Monet’s Water Lilies to modern-day space shuttles—only travel across the globe with precise, professional care.

Commercial movers take pains to ensure museum-goers have access to these historical works for years to come, but their work mainly stays behind the scenes. In this blog, we’ll pull aside those curtains for you and discuss some of the work that it takes to preserve your favourite installations.

Two Guidelines for Museum Packing

When you deal in antiquities or valuables, moving poses a risky prospect. Most people wouldn’t dare sit on a medieval throne (as much as they might want to), nor would they pluck away at a Stradivarius violin. While security guards and other museum personnel wouldn’t be too happy with the action, most people use a “look and don’t touch” method because they understand each piece’s fragility.

Paintings, sculptures, and other installations need particular care because of their value and age. So, to prepare for a move, curators and movers make sure to take their time as they move each piece and always plan ahead.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Most museums operate under the same unwritten rule: take it slow. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so don’t ruin that Roman aqueduct exhibit by trying to install it in one day.

Workers will examine each piece before they even touch it. Is it strong enough to move in the first place? Should they make repairs before it goes into the crate or truck? Once they complete the evaluation, their notes on any existing damages and its general condition remain on the museum’s inventory report.

Most handlers will use non-rubber latex or cotton gloves to protect the pieces from their hand’s oils. They will also place pieces on carts to make the movement smoother than it would be to carry them. However, sometimes the art is simply too risky to move.

If the piece is too delicate or damaged, curators will likely decide to leave it alone. There’s not much benefit to having beautiful artwork shipped if it arrives broken.

Always Plan Ahead

Museum workers and professional movers have a plan for nearly every move a piece of art takes, whether its itinerary includes a trip across the room or the International Date Line.

The first thing they consider is size. Can this item move as a solid piece or will it have to go in separate crates? For example, take Sue. Commercial shippers could transport her in one large crate since some companies offer up to 50 metric tonnes of lifting power. However, this is not the most practical option because of the fossil’s delicacy. Therefore, museum professionals break down the skeleton. In fact, her largest crate is only about 4x2x2 metres.

The Canadian Museums association also supplies a guidebook on how to practice environmentally safe methods during the shipping process. If possible, coordinate with other institutions so your moving company can ship your pieces and pick up arriving items on the same day. This will lower GHG emissions—and save time and money.

Packing Materials for Art Installations

As curators and movers plan their strategy, they will also consider what materials will help the artwork arrive at its destination in the best possible condition. Most will choose to place items in crates because it that exterior reduces shock, impact, and vibrations as it travels. But there’s much more to this process than merely placing paintings and sculptures in crates.

Workers cosset most pieces in heavy-duty cardboard and shrink wrap. These extra materials will give a cushion among the crated items, stabilize any lose fittings, and resist moisture. Shrink wrap also inhibits UV rays that could damage art in transit and prevents harmful oxidation processes.

Some curators even paint their crates whites. This isn’t for aesthetic purposes, though; white paint reflects light, which further protects from UV rays and keeps the materials inside the crate cooler. While some of these steps may seem extreme at first, the professional, vigilant attention these workers provide ensures the art’s longevity.

Now that you know how much work goes into transporting the art you enjoy, take a moment to appreciate it next time you walk through your local museum.


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