Back in the
1940s, during the Second World War, my mother and I came from
What still surprises me is that I eventually became associated with a museum in a way which would involved me in the actual loan process of art objects between museums. It really is the "big deal" my mother made it out to be. I will be telling you about some of my adventures with loans between museums. My experiences were related to my duties in the Architecture Department at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1980, I started as a volunteer for John Zukowsky, the new Architectural Archivist in the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries; the Architecture Department was created the following year with John as the first curator. I was hired full time in 1986, and I retired at the end of June in 2002.
During the last hundred and fifty years or so, the word "museum" has generally meant "a building housing cultural material to which the public has access." There is also the concept of preservation, conservation, and interpretation of the material in the museum. I am going to be talking about "art museums," but most museums operate in a similar fashion.
First of all, what is a "museum," why and when did they start?
People gather or collect all sorts of things: antiquities, shells, rocks, stuffed birds, pottery, jewelry, textiles, drawings and paintings, sculpture, furniture, and even architecture.
But once collected, then what? Enter "the museum."
In the city of
The actual word
"museum" is derived from the Greek work meaning "seat of the
referred to a philosophical institution or a place for contemplation. By the Third Century BC the Museum at
And then there
If we move
forward in time, a thousand years or so, to 1471, we get to the founding of the
Capitoline Museums, the first "public museums," by Pope Sixtus
IV; Sixtus donated a group of six bronze
statues to the "the People of Rome."
These pieces included the statue of the she-wolf with the infants
As we move into the European Renaissance, many of the great princely houses developed art collections, but these were not available to the public. The collections of various churches could be viewed by the public only when they were put on public display.
It was the rise of the banking and merchant families that produced the really great Renaissance art collections.
In 1523, in
Medici, and his descendents,
were among those who collected art on a spectacular scale. Part of the
England, the Tutors were more interested in music; the collection of Charles
the First was "dispersed" after his execution in 1649; the collection
of Charles II was mostly lost in a fire at
Peters' fictional Egyptologist Radcliffe Emerson said, "Frenchmen are all
alike. They are not to be trusted with
ladies or with antiquities." This
brings us to Napoleon;
looting on a Roman scale, but in a much shorter period of
time. So much art was taken from so many
places that the Congress of Vienna and the Second Treaty of Paris, both in
Revolution changed the Louvre from a royal palace to a museum. In 1793 the new Museum Central des Arts
opened to the public in the Grand Gallerie and the Salon Carré. The modern
In all fairness
to Napoleon, I should mention Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin, who
thought he was rescuing the unloved and abandoned antiquities of
As you can see,
the majority of the European museums are owned by the public, or rather, by the state for
the public. This is not generally the
case in the
Museum of Art in
Institute of Chicago was founded in 1879 as the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts
and was both a museum and a school; its first location was at the southwest
corner of State and Monroe Streets. The name was changed to The Art Institute
of Chicago. It had several homes before
it moved to its present location in Grant Park in December 1893. During the
early years, the records suggest that most of the exhibits were of the artwork
belonging to the various members of the organization as well as artwork for
sale. The first Annual Exhibition opened
in January 1883 when the museum had relocated to
This "transient" collection appeared to consist of two categories of artwork … works of art for sale, often by the artists themselves, including Alfred Bierstadt, and loans from private collectors, galleries, and other museums.
It is the loans I am interested in, or rather, the actual movement of the loans to and from the museum.
If a curator is willing to lend a requested object to another institution, permission has to be obtained and coordinated with a number of other departments. At the Art Institute, the departmental committee and the Board of Trustees must approve the loan. The Conservation Department must examine the object and certify that it is safe to be moved. The in-house photography section must have up-to-date digital photographs. The Registrar must also approve the loan to avoid time and space conflicts with the art handlers, the art packing and crate builders, truck and plane schedules, as well as the availability of staff to act as couriers.
Art couriers are required by the insurance companies when the value of the art being shipped or moved is more than a certain amount. They are also needed by the home or lending museum, just to keep an eye on things in case something goes wrong. At The Art Institute, art couriers must be staff qualified to "handle art." This includes the curators and their technical staff, the conservation staff, the photographers, the art handlers who move objects around the museum and hang the art, and the people who prepare the art for shipment by wrapping or crating.
When traveling with art, sometimes things do go wrong, or, at least, not as planned.
One loan from
The Art Institute to the Uffizi Gallery in
courier trip with an object being loaned to another museum was from The Art
Institute to the
Palmer would take her favorite Picasso painting with her when she went to
Small items can
be hand carried onto airplanes. Two
first class tickets can accommodate a courier and a smallish case. This is the way John Zukowsky carried the
entire Louis Sullivan "System of Architectural Ornament" series of
packed in an artist's portfolio, to
My first trip
traveling with art was in September, 1987.
The exhibition, "Chicago Architecture and Design, 1872-1922: Birth
of a Metropolis," was a large show with 277 catalog entries, many of them
including more than one object. The
exhibition opened not at The Art Institute, but at the Musée d'Orsay in
You can't believe how big a 747 is! When a plane is fitted out for cargo, the flight deck level includes the cockpit as well as a small galley, a toilet room, airline seating for three to six people such as couriers, and, sometimes, a double bunk bed. The rest of the plane is for fuel and cargo. The cargo area floor is specially fitted-out with metal floor plates containing powered rotating balls that move the pallets with amazing precision. There are two cargo loading doors: there is a big door on the side of the plane and, it turns out, the entire nose of the plane is hinged to swing out and provide access to the front area.
are loaded at the cargo section at O'Hare Field, which is south on
everything was ready to go and big forklifts moved the pallets, one by one, into the
plane. What a show! We watched our pallets being loaded, as well
as the pallets adjacent to ours; one must check to make sure that materials
loaded on adjacent pallets cannot damage our objects ... no bottles of acids,
for instance. The three of us climbed
up to the flight deck level that is reached from the cargo floor by means of a
steep pull-down ladder type stair, just like going into an attic. We were welcomed by the crew, pilot, co-pilot,
and navigator, who showed us where everything was. Eventually we took off and had an uneventful
night trip to
At Charles De
Gaulle airport we were met by the local freight forwarder. After clearing customs, and having our art
papers cleared, we
watched our crates being unloaded, disentangled from the shipping pallets, and
loaded into trucks to be driven into
We arrived at the Musée d'Orsay without any problems and were greeted by the staff members we would be working with. We supervised the unloading of the crates, counted them again, and saw the crates moved to the new gallery for visiting exhibits. When art crates arrive after a flight they must "rest" for 24 hours before being opened. This is supposed to give the art time to get acclimatized.
The next day we
started work. When we entered the Musée
d'Orsay through the staff entrance, we exchanged our Art Institute
identification badges for day-badges for the French museum. We unpacked, and checked everything. When art leaves a museum, it goes with what
is called a "Condition Report" filed in a "Condition
Book." In the case of this
exhibition, there were two Condition Books.
The books contained photographs of each object in the exhibit and a
sheet on which every crease, smudge, sign of wear, fingerprint, ink smear, etc.
had been recorded. Everything was
checked to see if there had been a change.
I did have to reframe one drawing, but nothing was damaged. After about three days, everything was
checked. The museum had a week to hang
the show. The Registrars returned to
Manly and I
The following morning the exhibit was opened by the French Minister of Culture and Illinois Governor Jim Thompson. How's that for class? There was a fancy buffet lunch for a few hundred special people. That evening there was a cocktail reception at the residence of the American ambassador for most of the same people. Really nice art!
All courier trips are not so trouble free. As I had now been trained in what art couriers were supposed to do, I was permitted to do trips on my own.
In 1993 I was
the courier to return drawings borrowed from
In addition to
the Spanish pilot, there was a Mexican mechanic going to
The pilots and
navigator chain-smoked all the way across the
We flew through
and above cotton wool until we reached the coast of
When I showed up at his office at the appointed time, it turned out that the crates had been moved to an off-site warehouse that was hard to get to. They did not seem eager to have me inspect the drawings. After consulting with our Registrars, I came home…on a real airplane with lots of seats, and a restroom, and meals at reasonable times.
In January of
1994 I was asked to be the courier to take seven framed architectural drawings
packed in three crates,
Ville" was a huge show;
they planned to have over 1200 objects from 400 lenders. That
meant at least 350 couriers.
I was scheduled
to leave on the evening of January 19, 1994, but the plane was late. It had been twenty degrees below zero the
night before and it was still only zero degrees, so I wasn't surprised that the
plane might be late. I had scheduled
dinner the next night with a friend in
The art and I
finally left the Art Institute in a special art-moving truck after 9:00 pm and
drove through snow to the Air France cargo terminal. Our three crates did not fill up a small
pallet, so other freight was added; part of my job was to make sure that
nothing that might prove to be dangerous to our art be placed on the same
pallet. The pallet was tied and braced,
wrapped in plastic and attached to the pallet base with a cargo net. And we waited for the plane to come from
It was another really cold night, so I was allowed to go to a warm room with a window overlooking the cargo-holding area.
course of the early morning hours, I was joined by an attractive woman
DVM who was supervising two crates of sheep, 36 animals, being shipped to a prince in
The plane finally arrived at 6:00 am, another huge 747. The unloading and then the loading was very slow because only one loader was working. You remember that 747's are loaded through both the nose and a side entrance. The weather was so cold that the hydraulic gear on the loader would freeze so that it would not work; one loader would be unloading or loading while the other was in the cargo area being thawed out.
I went on board
about 9:00 am after the front part of the plane was loaded and the large nose
hatch closed. I was warmly welcomed by the
three-man crew and a curator from the Pompidou on her way home after returning
drawings to the
We took off
eleven hours late. Remember me
mentioning the bunk beds? We took naps
and were awakened by the smell of food being heated up for us. Air
We landed in Paris just before midnight local time. As in Madrid, the only runway lights showing were for the runway we landed on. It was very foggy and from our high perch on the flight deck we could just see the ground. I think Charles De Gaulle Airport closes at midnight because at midnight all the lights turned off except in one terminal building that stays open until 1:00 am.
The plane parked at the deserted cargo area. No one from the office of our French freight forwarder/broker was at the plane to meet me, although the forwarder for the French curator was there. I explained that I had to stay with the art, but that wouldn't work as there was no cargo unloading crew, no freight forwarder, and everyone was leaving. The pilots took me to one of the main terminals in their van, where they left me. The terminal was deserted except for one man cleaning the floors. With the flashlight from my purse, I did locate a telephone and reached an Art Institute registrar at home. We agreed that I would go to another terminal in hopes of finding someone to page our freight forwarder. I plopped my suitcase onto a luggage trolley and wandered down the empty roadway system to another terminal that had doors that opened and a few minor signs of life. There was one open Air France office where a very nice man put a call out for my forwarder to come and meet me.
Surprise! A little man from the forwarding company did appear. He explained that the plane was very late, the airport was closed, and we would deal with our crates in the morning. The man then drove me into Paris to a hotel right across the street from the office of the freight forwarder so we could get an early start in the morning.
By 8:00 the next morning I had breakfasted and had crossed the street to the office of the freight forwarder. They were really nice. Our crew and I got into their truck and we returned to the cargo area at Charles De Gaulle. The cargo people there claimed that our crates were not there. One of my guys got a special badge so he could go into the stored freight area; he found our three crates. The fact that all Art Institute crates are painted red helps with the identification, especially in a big warehouse filled with crates. By 10:00 the truck was loaded. The trip into the underground loading and delivery area of the Pompidou Center was interesting; it is somewhat like the freight delivery/pick-up area at Union Station. The only problem here was that the Pompidou's big freight elevator was broken and none of the crates could be taken up to the Grand Gallery on the 5th floor. Swell! My three crates were taken out of the truck and put into a safe holding area in the basement with a number of other crates also waiting for the elevator. I could see the elevator mechanic working very hard.
I checked in, got paid, and went to the hotel where all the couriers were staying. I had lunch with the courier from Australia.
After lunch I returned to the Pompidou Centre. The person at the Information counter on the entrance level told me that I couldn't get to the 5th floor. So I went up the main Museum entrance on the 4th floor where my papers were understood and a guard took me through the various security doors and up the secure staff elevator to the 5th floor. Our three crates were there! As each crate was unpacked, the framed drawings were taken to the tables where one of the registrars and I completed the condition reports for our seven drawings.
By 4:30 I was finished. I had my delayed dinner with Betty Blum that night and returned to Chicago the next day. When I was asked why I was leaving Paris so quickly I explained that my daughter was getting married in three weeks and I really had to get home.
And I never learned what happened to the sheep.
The following May I represented the Art Institute at the conference of the International Confederation of Architectural Museums in Madrid; I then flew to Paris to collect our seven drawings from the Pompidou Center. I did not linger in Paris this time either, as our son was to be married in three weeks. The trip home was on time and uneventful, but one of the loveliest flights I have ever had. Greenland was spectacular, but best of all was the view of Lake Michigan and points west: as we passed over the middle of the state of Michigan, just before we started descending for our landing at O'Hare, the pilots called me to come and sit behind them, explaining that the atmosphere was unusually clear; it was twilight and so clear that we could see from Aurora to Milwaukee. We were still high enough to actually see the curvature of the earth. Fantastic!
In December 1995, I was asked to go to Japan, along with two other couriers, to assist in the return of Japanese prints to The Art Institute. The Asian Art Department had three shipments returning from Tokyo; as I was a specialist for "works of art on paper," I was asked to help them out. Two of us left Chicago on December 8th on Japan Air Line's flight to Tokyo. This plane was a 747 which carried regular passengers as well as containerized cargo; such flights are called "combis," as in combined flights.
My traveling companion had not been a courier before, so I was supposed to supervise and train her; however, she had been an exchange student in Japan for a year and spoke some Japanese and understood the subway and train system, so she trained me in how to get around Tokyo.
On Monday morning we went to the Tobu Museum where we checked our Japanese prints and supervising their packing. By noon we were finished and the Art Institute's three crates were closed and sealed. All the couriers were invited to a farewell lunch. There was lots of interesting food and interesting couriers from many European and American museums.
During rest of the week, I had several errands, such as checking out what was then the new Museum of Contemporary Art, which had asked to borrow some our Hilberseimer drawings, and paying a courtesy call on Dr. Kisho Kurokawa.
On Thursday, all the couriers had to be back at the Tobu Museum to meet with the Japanese customs officials who inspected the borrowed drawings before granting export permission.
The next day, the "trainee" courier and I, was well as several other couriers, were taken, along with the related art crates, to the Narita Airport cargo area; here we supervised the wrapping and eventual placement of the art crates into cargo containers. Then we all went to the general passenger area of Narita where the paperwork was cleared and the outgoing passengers went through passport control. I was returned to Tokyo.
Monday morning, bright and early at 6:00 am, I, and the courier from Brussels, were met by our local guardian. We returned to the Tobu Museum, our crates of drawings were loaded into a truck, and we all went back to the cargo area at Narita, almost a two-hour drive during rush hour. My two Art Institute crates were wrapped in plastic, loaded into a cargo container, which was then sealed and also wrapped in plastic, and then placed on a pallet. I got the required paperwork and was told that the container would be stored under the First Class compartment on the plane.
We were then taken to the passenger building were I checked in. I arrived at my gate early – part of the courier experience. I could watch as the "sex-tour" groups left on the flights to Bangkok.
I could finally board the flight home. After take-off, the announcements were made in three languages: Japanese, Chinese, and English. We were told that we would reach the International Date Line in 3 hours, where it was still Sunday; we would be traveling at 550 miles per hour; and we would be flying at 33,000 feet.
Now, that is high art.
Luigi H. Mumford
Presented at The Chicago Literary Club
January 30, 2006
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Where is Luigi this time? Germany , June 12-16, 2000.
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