Lend, lend, lend!

April 11 2013

Image of Lend, lend, lend!

Picture: BBC

Are oil paintings put at unnecessary risk by lending to exhibitions, and moving them about it? Short answer, no. But lots of people think they are. So I was surprised to read, following my rather unkind appraisal of the Museums Association 'vision' document, Museums 2020, that the MA agrees with me. Page 19 of Museums 2020 says:

Museums can take greater risks in the way they use and share collections. Handling and lending rarely cause significant harm.

This is true, and worth emphasising in light of a recent article in The Art Newspaper suggesting that, because of the risk of damage, museums should lend less often. Blake Gopnik says we need far fewer exhibitions, and cites:

[...] the physical risks run by works of art every time they are moved; as recently as 2008, at the National Gallery in London, a panel painting was dropped and broken as workers took down the great “Renaissance Siena” show. We also have to worry about the wear and tear that will diminish every well-travelled picture or sculpture. (Conservators wouldn’t fill in condition reports on every loan if there had never been a thing to note on their forms.)

Well, it's now 2013, so the National Gallery's dropped picture debacle was five years ago. Of all the major exhibitions in the world, one damage every five years is, I would say, not enough to argue for fewer exhibitions, the activity around which is the life-blood of any museum. In my experience of moving (lots and lots of) pictures, there is very little risk of damage or ‘wear and tear’, because - and here's the great secret everyone - these things are pretty damn tough. Much tougher than us, in fact.

The fuss made over loans and handling by conservators has reached levels of new silliness. Did you know, for example, that curators at one of London's major museums aren't actually allowed to pick up and move paintings? To move a picture, a curator has to book a team of art handlers. I once watched another London museum use 12 people to hang a single painting. All this costs money, of course, and leads to unnecessary strictures on the handling and lending of objects. 

What is especially curious about the increasing nervousness over art handling is the varying approach taken by museums. Some museums are still happy with a relaxed and common sense approach to loans. For a recent loan exhibition here at Philip Mould & Company the most valuable item arrived, via the Underground, in a curator's handbag. In the same exhibition, however, another object cost more to transport than every other exhibit combined. It had to be flown first class, in a large crate, and accompanied by a specialist courier who was put up in an expensive hotel for three days each side of the journey. It was a miniature. And then there's the inconsistency of museums keeping objects in a cold basement, but demanding that they be housed in a permanently stable environment with the temperature at 21 degrees and the humidity at 50%, were it ever to be put on public display.

Now it is hard to disagree with the idea that we must be as cautious as possible with the handling of museum objects. And yet if preservation was our sole aim, we would never display anything. Some museum conservators would undoubtedly prefer it this way. But we must strike a balance between care and display, and I would argue that we have lately gone too far in the wrong direction. The result is that exhibitions have become harder, and more expensive, to mount. At some institutions there is now almost a presumption not to lend objects. The procedures to approve a loan are so tedious and time consuming that for many curators it's not worth the effort. The captive grip of the museum basement is getting stronger and stronger. 

Update - Michael Savage, aka The Grumpy Art Historian, disagrees, and wonders why we need exhibitions at all.

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