A Girl, In Transit
If you have ever travelled with a baby you will know that, in order to ensure a safe and pleasant trip, it's essential to plan and prepare in advance. But even then there are often hiccups to contend with on the way. It's really no different when travelling with the National Galleries of Scotland's baby, Ron Mueck's A girl – she just happens to be a little bigger...
Weighing in at a healthy 740kg, she measures 110.5 x 501 x 134.5cm from head to (very) big toe! And she's certainly a popular girl – since her acquisition in 2007 she has travelled from Pittsburgh in the USA, to Kanazawa in Japan and to Aberdeen in the north east of Scotland. It was from Aberdeen that she started her journey to Christchurch, via London, Frankfurt, Dubai, Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
The National Galleries agreed to lend A girl to the Ron Mueck exhibition during the summer of 2009. Prior to our agreement, while the conservation department checked that she was in good enough condition to withstand the rigours of transport half way around the world, here in the registrars' department we requested and reviewed information on the environmental and security arrangements at each borrowing venue. All this information helps us determine how the artwork will travel, and what arrangements need to be put in place en route and at the exhibition venues to minimise any risk of damage or loss.
A girl is constructed from a variety of media including fibreglass, polyester resin, silicone and natural hair. Unlike many large sculptures, it cannot be taken apart and moved in sections, and so has its own custom-built crate, designed not only to keep the sculpture safe from the potentially damaging effects of the outside world, but also to provide ease of access for unpacking and installation. Together with colleagues at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, we agreed on the most appropriate transport schedule and route, taking into consideration a bewildering range of factors. These included the overall length of the journey, potential changes in temperature and humidity en route, the number of times the work would have to be moved from one mode of transport to another, the levels of security available throughout, the reliability of the transport and, not least, the exhibition budget.
Moving delicate and valuable works of art is a specialist and expensive area. Vehicles must be fitted with air-ride suspension, environmental management and security systems to avoid damage or theft. Any aircraft we use must be able to carry palletised or containerised freight, ensuring the crates cannot move around in the aircraft hold, and we have to have access to secure storage facilities at the airport.
The larger the artwork the more limited our options are, and a sculpture the size and weight of A girl can only travel across continents by commercial freighter. But unlike passenger aircraft, freighters do not necessarily operate on a daily basis, they frequently change route or schedule at the last minute; no matter how carefully we had thought out our journey, we needed a plan B. (Livestock bookings usually take precedence on a freighter, and in the past some of our shipments have been cancelled to accommodate horses and their grooms, and even a consignment of pigs!) A girl was booked onto a freighter scheduled to fly from Heathrow to Melbourne on 8 January, arriving on 11 January via stops in Hong Kong and Sydney. But first we had to get her to London.
The exhibition at Aberdeen Art Gallery closed on 31 October and as A girl was due to set off from Heathrow in early January, we decided it would be best for her to spend Christmas in the fine art store of our London shipping agents. This kept the amount of movement and handling to a minimum – and had the added bonus of reducing transport costs since there were other works in the show travelling to London at the same time. In the meantime, we continued to finalise arrangements for her onward journey to Australia, and her arrival and installation at the NGV.
As the journey and installation involved a number of complex moves, one of our fine art technicians, Ian Thompson, would travel with A girl to ensure she was moved and stored appropriately, to assist with the installation in Melbourne and to troubleshoot any unexpected problems. The extreme weather in the UK during early January quickly presented Ian with his first problem. Due to depart Heathrow on the evening of 8 January, that very morning we were advised that the connecting flight from Hong Kong had been cancelled; the next available flight would be a day later than planned. The shipping agents in the UK, Hong Kong, and Australia quickly reorganised bookings and ensured Ian would have an additional night in a hotel in Hong Kong (not something he was too worried about). However, just five hours later we were advised Heathrow had run out of antifreeze and the freighter Ian and A girl were due to fly out on had been diverted to Manchester, 200 miles north. The freighter would now also stop in Frankfurt and Dubai en route to Hong Kong. This change of route meant our shipping agents had to jump into action again and arrange for supervision at Manchester, Frankfurt and Dubai in addition to Hong Kong. As a further precaution arrangements were also made that A girl would be loaded at the tail-end of the aircraft to ensure that she was not offloaded during the stopovers. Ian and A girl finally departed the UK on Saturday 9 January.
Having spent a number of hours supervising loading in a cargo warehouse and out on the tarmac in freezing conditions, Ian boarded the aircraft – his home for the next three days. With only six seats and no inflight entertainment, being a passenger in a freighter is definitely not luxury travel. Ian thoroughly enjoyed himself sitting in the cockpit whilst flying past the world’s tallest building in Dubai, and coming in to land over the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He was also surprised to be handed a high-visibility jacket and torch by one of the pilots during the middle-of-the-night stopover at Frankfurt and asked to help the crew check under the 747 for fuel leaks. Much of his time though was spent reading, eating and popping down to check our crate hadn’t shifted during the course of the flight.
Ian and A girl finally arrived safely in Melbourne on Tuesday 12 January. After clearing customs and a thirty-minute drive to the National Gallery of Victoria, the journey was almost complete, but not quite. We already knew she was too big to enter the gallery through the loading dock, and so before Christmas had agreed on a solution. The NGV created a template of the crate and ‘walked’ it through the gallery, checking which doorways could accommodate its dimensions, and where it was possible to turn it. The NGV had also organised collection from the airport in a climate-controlled, air-ride curtain-sided vehicle – ensuring offloading could be done by forklift truck, and the crate moved directly into the gallery space through a second access point in the building.
After a well-deserved rest, Ian assisted with the unpacking of the crate and condition checked A girl to confirm she had arrived without any bumps and bruises, before the team of fine art technicians carefully placed her on her plinth. It takes six to eight technicians to lift A girl and they need to be aware of the more fragile areas. For example the umbilical cord and lower hand can’t be used as a lifting point due to how they are joined to the body. They also need to know in advance how the weight is distributed: her head is noticeably heavier than her feet.
Once in place on her plinth, like any baby she needs lots of care and attention. The plinth is designed to visually frame A girl but also to provide a necessary safety barrier – we have found people tend to want to get as close as possible to her surface. While on display, she is prone to collect dust and so a conservator at each venue will lightly dust her using a combination of soft-haired brushes and light suction from a special vacuum cleaner. She may also have her hair carefully brushed, but only in the direction it falls.
Having moved again to the Queensland Art Gallery in April, we are now in the process of finalising arrangements for the transfer to Christchurch. Once again we’re reviewing the options available, including this time a sea crossing via sealed climate-controlled container – a first for us as normally this mode of transport is ruled out due to the length of the journey and an absence of environmental control. Our friends and colleagues at NGV are looking after her en route to Christchurch and will ensure she is safely delivered and installed. A girl has become an international ambassador for the National Galleries of Scotland, continuing and developing existing relationships with museums and galleries like the NGV and creating exciting new links with cities, art galleries and museums to which we have never lent before, such as Christchurch Art Gallery.