Note: I intended to publish this last week, but events on Friday overtook us and this post was put on hold. Still, it’s better late than never!
Monday was a bit of a red letter day at the Polar Museum, as it saw the return of many of our objects from a very long touring exhibition, Race to the End of the Earth. Since opening in 2010, the exhibition has had tens of thousands of visitors in five venues. In a journey almost as epic as Captain Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, our objects travelled from Cambridge to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, then on to the Palazzo Ducale in Genoa, the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, the Museum of Idaho, the Musée des Confluences in Lyon, and finally back to Cambridge, where we welcomed them back this week.
Normally it’s a safe bet that what comes back to your museum after a loan is the same as what left it … but not in this case.¹ This touring exhibition had slightly different displays at each museum, so each time it moved to a new venue, some objects came back to us and others went out on tour. Sometimes this was because of practical constraints at a particular venue, but other times it was for conservation reasons. Display for long periods can be damaging to museum objects (which is why we have a programme of regular rotation for the most sensitive objects in our collections). Touring exhibitions can cause additional wear and tear, either through prolonged exposure to light, or just from the handling, packing and mounting that is necessary for an exhibition, so it is common for fragile objects to be swapped in and out so they can be “rested”. Like people, objects sometimes benefit from a long lie-down in a darkened room!
A unexpected complication from all this swapping was that our objects went out and came back in different crates. We discovered after unloading that the new crates would not fit through this door (which has access to the lift down to our basement store)!
Luckily, we managed to muster enough strong chaps to carry the crates up the front steps of the Institute and into our temporary gallery, where we roped off an area for unpacking and condition checking:
(These pictures are for anyone who has ever wanted to see inside a shipping crate. They contain a lot of foam to ensure that the objects inside have a smooth plane/boat/lorry ride. This crate only contained three modest-sized boxes of objects, and the rest was polyethylene foam!)
I was excited to see that one of the boxes inside contained knitwear belonging to Edward Mackenzie, a stoker on Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. I became interested in these mittens and their construction while documenting them before they went on tour, and concluded that they were made from a stitch called fisherman’s rib. I knitted a swatch of fisherman’s rib, to see if it would look similar – and it did!²
I was reminded of all this while condition-checking the mittens, an essential part of any museum loans procedure. Before an object goes on loan to another museum, it is thoroughly photographed and has its condition documented in detail. It is checked when it arrives at the exhibition venue, and again when it leaves and arrives back home. Having good records allows us to spot any changes in condition during transit or display (fortunately, this is very rare), and to work out where in the process they have happened.
The pictures below show both old-style and new-style condition reports:
In the first picture, I am comparing McKenzie’s mittens with the photographs and notes that I made when they first went on tour in 2013. Paper records like this are good because you can write on them easily, and because you can have a single set of documentation that accompanies an object throughout its tour and is then archived. We usually use paper condition reports at the Polar Museum (albeit print-outs of digital reports).
This time, however, we were brought into the 21st century! Jenn, a registrar at AMHN, has accompanied the touring exhibition over the last few years and has been the person responsible for shipping, unpacking, documenting and installing all the objects in all its venues. To save her from lugging around a suitcase of paperwork everywhere she goes, she keeps all the loan documentation on an iPad. The digital condition reports can be annotated and even signed just like paper copies (although this is a bit tricky while wearing gloves). Once she gets back to New York, Jenn can e-mail us the annotated digital report, and we can print it out to be filed with our more traditional ones.
Once all the documentation has been done, the objects go into quarantine (in case they have picked up any nasty bugs on their travels), before going back into storage for a well-deserved rest.