It’s wonderful to hear that someone is moved by a work of art or an exhibition,” says Irvin Lippman, executive director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art. But how do you move a work of art?
Behind the scenes of every major touring exhibition lies a nerve-wracking array of logistical entanglements that crowds gazing at art and artifacts may never consider. From mummy curses and customs snafus to runaway delivery trucks and earthquake-induced power outages, safely transporting a major exhibition from point A to point B requires patience and passion.
Ancient Egyptian mummies, painted masks, coffins, jewelry, funerary items and amulets dating back centuries recently found their way to the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium in West Palm Beach. The blockbuster exhibit Afterlife: Tombs and Treasures of Ancient Egypt, which originated at the Bolton Museum in Manchester, England, and is making its North American debut in West Palm Beach, was traveling from Asia. The majority of the 278 artifacts in the show, which had been seen by 4.5 million people worldwide, spent a month at sea on their journey from Hong Kong; the mummies and a few other rarities flew in a climate-controlled environment.
When crates containing the Egyptian treasures arrived at customs in Miami, there were more than 18 artifacts requiring special documentation under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Federal regulations on imported ivory designed to protect African elephants and other endangered species had the 3,000-year-old mummy of a young girl and a number of other artifacts from the show tied up in bureaucratic red tape for days.
For help in navigating these specialized logistical requirements, museums generally rely on professional art shipping companies. Gander & White, an international firm with offices in West Palm Beach, guided the Egyptian antiquities through customs, worked with agents in Hong Kong, picked up items from the airport in specially equipped trucks and stored them in climate-controlled warehouses, where the delicate objects were given 24 hours to adapt to local temperatures and humidity levels. They custom built crates lined with foam to cradle the priceless treasures. Each object was carefully documented and photographed so that even minute changes could be tracked.
“Creating an exhibit is like putting up a small house,” says Carolyn Routledge, Egyptologist and the curator of Afterlife. “First we create a concept and a narrative. We pick only the best objects to illustrate the story that we want to tell.”
Upon entering Afterlife, visitors see a segment of plaster flooring illustrated with flying marsh birds from the Royal Palace in Amarna, where Tutankhamen grew up. Carved steles illustrate the rich daily life of the highborn. Scenes of celebration carved in granite depict activities that would carry on forever in the afterlife and small bronze figurines represent the gods they would meet there. “It’s a true wonder,” Routledge says. “It takes a week to assemble the installation with a team of five or six people.”
Scoring a major traveling exhibition is a coup for the Science Center and for Palm Beach County, says Science Center Chief Executive Officer Lew Crampton. “Afterlife is the only exhibit featuring genuine Egyptian artifacts that is on tour anywhere in the United States,” he notes. “We provide a premier showing of Egyptian artifacts that – given social and political conditions in Egypt – will not be seen again in the near future.”
The Science Center’s new exhibition hall, funded by the Quantum Foundation, provides the kind of space needed to accommodate the show and the other large “blockbuster” exhibitions that Crampton hopes will engage new audiences. “Afterlife and last year’s Titanic exhibit expand our brand in exponential ways,” he says. “Afterlife puts us in front of new visitors who reside in South Florida and will bring in thousands of tourists who flock here during the winter months.”
It’s a Small World After All
“Choosing an exhibition is a collaborative process,” says Martin J. Hanahan, exhibitions manager at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. “We look for relevant artists and topics and have our fingers on the pulse of what’s happening in the art world.”
As within many fields, it’s not what you know, but who you know. Hanahan cultivates relationships with other museums, collectors and artists. “It’s like putting a concert series together,” he says. “We want broad programming and high quality to reach a determined audience.”
Despite the intricate demands and reams of paperwork associated with shipping, packing, loan agreements and transport insurance, Lippman, who served as director of the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale before taking the helm at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, says, “We want the exhibit to feel effortless.”
The work that goes into mounting each show is worth it to Lippman, who worked at the National Gallery of Art in Washington when the “Mona Lisa” made her appearance there and smiled upon President John F. Kennedy K in 1963. https://www.palmbeachculture.com/art-culture/a-moving-experience/“Exhibits bring a certain power with them,” he says. “Many exhibits are so memorable they never quite leave us.”