Aisha Burtenshaw, Head of Registrars and Exhibitions, takes us on a trip around the world with objects from the Ashmolean Museum.
Producer: Lucie Dawkins
Presenters: Lucie Dawkins and Aisha Burtenshaw
About Museum Secrets: The curators at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology have been recording bite-sized tales of the wonderful, and sometimes unexpected, life of a museum. We can’t wait to share them with you! Join us every weekday for 3 weeks, from 28 December onwards, for a daily dose of cheer. Find out more on the podcast page on the Ashmolean website: ashmolean.org/museum-secrets
Lucie: This is Museum Secrets from the Ashmolean.
I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every day I’ll be bringing you a bitesized undercover story from our collections. Step in through the front doors, and join me for some joyful, wonderful, and sometimes bizarre tales hidden in the objects. We will be going behind the scenes and beyond the labels, into dark corners of the storerooms and into the minds of the curators.
Today, we are going deep behind the scenes to find out more about the way that objects travel all around the world. Here’s Aisha Burtenshaw, Head of Registrars, to tell us more.
Aisha: My job is a bit unusual.
When you visit the Ashmolean, you might not spend a lot of time thinking about the journeys that artworks have to go on to reach the galleries so that you can look at them.
Behind the scenes, there is a team of us in charge of making sure they make those journeys in one piece.
We are the Registrars.
We are responsible for making all of the arrangements for moving artworks in and out of the museum for a variety of reasons.
Mostly it is to either lend works from our collection to exhibitions in other museums, or to borrow works from other collections for us to display.
I love the fact that one day I might be packing up a Michelangelo drawing to send to New York and the next I might be carefully nestling a Roman marble head into a crate to send it off to Chester.
My life at the museum has not been without surprises though, and I’m pretty sure that some of the things that can happen when we ship artworks would be pretty unexpected to a lot of people listening to this!
I have been so lucky to have travelled the world with art, but contrary to my family’s belief that these are jollies there is at times little glamour in it.
The journey often starts very early in the morning (I think my earliest ever start was 2:30am), and you are then whisked off with your crate to the airport.
Cargo warehouses at airports are interesting spaces, and I can confirm nearly always smell of fish.
I always love having a sneaky peak in the warehouse to see what other things are being loaded up to travel on board flights – things as diverse as the aforementioned fish through to racehorses and super cars.
Once the crates are loaded, you can go to the passenger terminal of the airport and wait until you can board the plane and then on arrival you are whisked back to the cargo warehouse at the destination airport.
My least glamorous moment I think was sitting in a cargo warehouse for 6 hours waiting for customs clearance in Seoul for a shipment of touring exhibition of works by Pissarro. It was late December and it was -10 degrees outside. The waiting area only had one tiny heater to try and heat the vast space.
I am not sure I have ever been as cold as I was then, and I have never felt such relief when the crates were finally loaded and I got to sit in the back of the warm truck to travel onwards to the museum.
Of course sometimes you might be travelling with something tiny, and if that is the case, the work will travel with you in the plane and will have its own seat that it gets strapped to on board, inside its box.
I of course like to be as inconspicuous as possible when travelling with a museum object for obvious reasons. Usually, you are travelling with a priceless piece of national heritage and I would really not like to draw attention to that!
However, I was once accompanied by an armed guard in an Italian airport when returning with a Renaissance drawing from Rome. He sat with me for the entire duration whilst I waited for hours to board the plane. He was currently learning English and was so keen to practise with me, but try as I might, I simply could not ignore the huge gun slung over his shoulder! I certainly got a number of interested looks from passing passengers as I sat there with my black box and an armed guard. I don’t think I could have stood out more if I tried!
Once the crates are safely flown to wherever and unloaded, the journey continues usually by truck to the exhibition venue.
One of my favourite art shipping facts is that when you arrive to the loading area at the Louvre in Paris, you and your crate are taken to the stores via a series of tunnels running under the museum. The place is so vast that you have to travel by golf buggy. It’s a whole little town under there that the public never get to see!
So that’s a little insight into how art travels by air, but what about the boxes that we put the objects into? Just how special is it possible for a wooden crate to be?
Well, from very recent experience I can tell you that for some works, no holds are barred when it comes to making sure that the ultimate protection can be given in transit by the crate.
On opening a crate for a loaned work for a recent exhibition that we worked on, we found that inside the crate was a second inner crate before we came to the painting itself.
This in itself is not uncommon. Double crating is one of the standard ways to try to minimise potential damage in transit.
However, what was unusual in this particular crate was that between the outer crate and inner crate were shock absorbers.
And not standard shock absorbers, but ones manufactured by Porsche to go around their engines. So it really was the Rolls Royce - or should I say Porsche - of crates.
So I want to finish up with a short story that would strike fear in the heart of anyone whose work it is to pack up and send art to exhibitions.
A couple of years ago, during the installation of our exhibition Spellbound, we were happily unpacking and installing weird and wonderful objects such as cows hearts studded with nails and mummified cats chasing mummified rats.
Most of the crates were accompanied by couriers from the various places that we were borrowing from. One of these particular couriered crates came from a museum in London whose identity shall remain unnamed.
We were borrowing a large number of works from them and all had been going smoothly. On unpacking the last crate, we took the objects out of the first layer of the crate without issue. In the second layer of the crate, there were several smaller items.
We unpacked them, leaving the most fragile and beautiful ivory panel until last.
On removing the foam layer to reveal the panel we found…an empty space.
No panel, not even a scrap of tissue.
We turned and looked at the courier, whose face had drained of all colour. “Please” he said, “can you check again?”
It was patently obvious to all present that there was no panel in the box. We removed all of the foam and thoroughly checked the crate but no, they had simply forgotten to pack the work.
Luckily for all involved, we were able to arrange for the piece to be brought up to us a couple of days later, but the fear of this remains with me every single time I pack a work to send on loan. I check, then double check and frequently triple check, opening crates that have been sealed just to make sure that I am not the one sending out an empty crate. This fear haunts my dreams!
Fear aside though, I truly do love my job. I think that we are so lucky to be hands on with works from across our collections, up close and personal with paintings, Greek vases and Japanese kimonos. Us registrars get to be guardians of these pieces as they travel around the UK and all around the world and for that, I really do feel honoured.
Lucie: Aisha’s story reminds me that the Ashmolean Museum is not just about objects, it’s also about journeys.
Join us tomorrow for an episode that’s worth enjoying over a cup of tea. It’s a story about a rude teapot.
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