For a traveling exhibition like El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa, the preparator's job starts the moment a truck delivering art parks at our dock. An assessment of the appearance of the vehicle, demeanor of the drivers, and how the crates are secured inside the truck are all clues as to how well the works have been treated. We also do a quick inspection of the outside of the crate as they are removed from the truck to see if there is evidence it has been mishandled.
There are three primary concerns for art in transit; climate, vibration, and shock. Often, there is a courier who will travel with the artwork to ensure it is handled properly and to oversee its unpacking and installation. While crates are insulated and ride on climate-controlled trucks to limit exposure to the outside environment, as a precaution we allow crates to sit unopened for at least 24 hours to gradually adjust to the conditions in the museum. After the crates have acclimated and under the courier’s supervision, they are opened.
As preparators, we must pay close attention to each step in the unpacking process, taking pictures and jotting down notes to aide us when the time comes for repacking. This could be in a couple of months or many years, in some cases. Each object has a condition report that details any imperfections or previous damage to the piece. When the objects are unpacked they are thoroughly inspected and compared to the condition report.
There were a total of 33 crates delivered for El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote You About Africa. As he uses a variety of materials, we saw a plethora of packing methods. The prints and wood panels were the most basic; each being wrapped in plastic and placed face up on a tray, with multiple trays in a single crate. The ceramics pieces were cavity packed. This means layers of foam cut to conform to the shape of each object. His clothes or large tapestry-like works were rolled onto large tubes with plastic interleaving and then suspended by the end of the tubes inside the crate or draped over a support. The most packing-intensive artwork was Open Market, having more than 1,500 individual boxes wrapped in tissue.
Come January 7, we will do the whole process in reverse and only when everything has arrived safely at its next destination will our job be done.