Museums were paying huge fees for personal couriers to travel with large loans. New technology could mean they don’t have to


Anne Barz, chief registrar of Museum Barberini in Potsdam, has spent much of the past few weeks on FaceTime as 26 restorers from around the world watched her team set up an exhibition of more than 100 works of art, many of them by Rembrandts.

Due to the pandemic, each curator of institutions such as the Mauritshuis in The Hague, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Kunstmuseum in Basel and the Albertina Museum in Vienna, as well as several American institutions, sat at a desk in home office or elsewhere and remotely supervised the installation of the work for which they were responsible.

Before the pandemic, they would almost certainly have been present. And snagging that show was even more difficult than uninstalling the 40 Monet loans the Potsdam museum had to ship last summer, says Barz, which was also done with restorers who called.

But this is the new normal.

Barberini Museum. Photo: David von Becker

The occasion was the exhibition “The Orient of Rembrandt”, which examines the Eurocentric fascination of the Dutch artist with the Far East (where Rembrandt never traveled).

And in particular, this is the first exhibition that the Barberini Museum has had to set up almost exclusively with virtual couriers.

“The partner on the other end of the phone knows the painting so well that they can recognize the cracks with our call,” Barz told Artnet News. “Sometimes we need instructions, but most of the time it’s just a matter of trust,” she says.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn <i>Daniel and Cyrus in front of the idol Bel</i>, (1633).  © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. “Width =” 1024 “height =” 782 “srcset =”×782 .jpg 1024w,×229.jpg 300w, /03/108_los_angeles_getty_rembrandt-1-50×38.jpg 50w “sizes =” (max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px “/></p>
<p class=Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn Daniel and Cyrus in front of the Idol Bel, (1633). © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Before the pandemic, fragile or expensive works were almost always chaperoned by a personal courier who watched them from the time they left their original museum or storage location, until they were moved elsewhere in the world. world. The courier watched him on the airport apron, saw him loaded onto a truck, passed him through customs and drove him to a museum, all without ever taking his eyes off the room.

Because loans do not come with security deposits or rental fees, it is therefore essential that a lender have the full confidence of the borrowing institution that it will be taken care of properly, regardless of the situation. cost.

“It’s an extremely expensive process,” says Barz.

Lending a work from the United States usually means business class airline tickets, hotel expenses, and per diems. “We’re talking about € 20,000 in costs for this person’s travel,” says Barz. If each courier for the Monet exhibition had traveled from the United States to Berlin, the whole process could have cost as much as € 800,000.

But the pandemic has accelerated change in the field, as companies like Articheck in the UK seek to create pathways.

The company’s artistic logistics application, Articheck, provides a virtual messaging system in which all transit information, quality checks and communications between parties are centralized in one place.

“The concept was born out of transit disruptions during the pandemic, but I quickly realized that there would be lasting effects on the art world due to the economic fallout, an increased need for clear distance communication. and the need to embrace digital technologies, ”CEO Annika Erikson told Artnet News.

To track a work as it travels one way by plane, the technology costs around £ 500 – over 90% savings compared to traditional couriers.

Articheck virtual mail.  Courtesy of Articheck.

Articheck virtual mail. Courtesy of Articheck.

Another program, BecauseLive, provides real-time information on the status of a work through light sensors that monitor when a crate has been closed, opened or even tilted. The drop sensors follow the movements of the package 24 hours a day and also check the temperature conditions.

Paul Smith of London-based arts logistics company Martin Speed ​​told Artnet News that services like these work very well and customers are willing to accept them as a viable alternative.

“Once you can show that something like this works, it lightens the burden,” says Smith. “It adds an extra layer of care that might not have been there with a physical courier.”

And while neither Barz nor Smith believe personal couriers are going to go away, additional tools can help maintain trust and transparency in the museum shipping industry.

“Change is always a little scary,” says Smith. “But Covid-19 has moved the agenda forward. “

“Rembrandt’s Orient” is on view at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany, until June 27.

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