Rosenbach on the Road

I’m a bit behind on blogging this week, since I just got back from New Haven, where we are lending our miniature of James I to the Yale Center for British Art for an exhibit on the collector and commentator Horace Walpole. The exhibit runs from October 15-January 3 and it won’t even cost you a dime to see it since the Center for British Art is free to the public, so if you live nearby you should definitely check it out.

In addition to old Jimmy there are a number of other pieces from the Rosenbach collection making the rounds at the moment. Our Sendak on Sendak exhibit is currently out on the left coast at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, and we’ve also lent to a Wild Things exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York.

Loaning items to other institutions is an important part of the Rosenbach’s mission to engage broad audiences with our collections. But it’s not a simple process–unlike when I moved my ratty Ikea furniture to my new house five years ago, you can’t just wrap a Sendak drawing or a four hundred year old miniature in an old towel and throw it into a U-Haul. Instead it involves great care and a number of people.

We start by assessing whether the item in question is stable enough to travel and exhibit at all, a question which often involves consulting with conservators to treat and prepare the item. Then the item must be packed–this is where handy to have someone as skillful as our registrar Karen Schoenewaldt, who can work wonders with matboard, ethefoam, and bubble wrap. If you’ve every tried to pack something fragile and valuable like wedding china or crystal glassware, you can appreciate the challenge. Karen’s packing skills are phenomenal and she even draws pretty little diagrams of how all the packing materials pieces fit together, so that the item can be repacked neatly for the return trip.

No Rosenbach object ever travels alone. Whenever we send something to another museum, one or more of our staff members travels with it to make sure it reaches its destination safely and is installed correctly in its home away from home. If an item is large enough to require a truck we work with specialized art shipping companies that provide climate controlled, secure trucks with two drivers–AND we send a staff member to ride along. From personal experience I have to say that the cargo travels better than the people in those trucks–it can be a pretty bumpy ride for those of us up in the cab.

Once it arrives at its temporary home, we check the item’s condition to make sure that nothing has been damaged in transit and then we supervise the installation of the object, to ensure that it is secure and that appropriate environmental conditions are met–not too bright, not too dry, etc.

And of course this is only one way. We have to repeat many of these steps to retrieve an object at the end of a loan. And I haven’t even begun to talk about the paperwork that accompanies each step of the process, which is all handled by our amazing registrar. And of course many exhibits involve loans from multiple museums, so you can imagine the planning and legwork that the borrowing institution must go through to coordinate everything and everyone!

So the next time you go to an exhibit that involves loans (they’re usually noted on the exhibit labels), you can be glad that both the borrowing institution and the lending institution worked so hard to bring their objects together to tell a compelling story.