On September 5, two professional art handlers from Artex Fine Art Services loaded a great big wooden crate onto their climate-controlled box truck, strapped it securely into the rear cargo area, then strapped my little suitcase next to it. The three of us climbed into the cab and hit the road: the Folger’s “Sieve” portrait of Queen Elizabeth I was on her way to The Jewish Museum in New York for Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries. Hannah drove, Emily navigated, and I crocheted. Well, technically, I couriered – it’s standard practice for a courier to accompany important loans – but unless something goes wrong, there’s not much to do during the trip itself. Nothing went wrong, so I just hung out in the sleeper area of the cab. A little over five hours later, the Lincoln Tunnel spat us out into Midtown. We made our way up the West Side, across Central Park (hugging the center line under the arched bridges), and ended up with a perfect parking space on 92nd Street at Fifth Avenue.
Note that this parking space was achieved after Hannah had zig-zagged the truck between a double-parked Rolls Royce and a double-parked utility truck on opposite sides of the already-narrow 93rd, around a tight corner onto 5th, then around two double-parked tour buses and another tight corner onto 92nd. Awesome.
After unloading, art handlers at the Jewish Museum took over and dollied the crate up to the exhibition space, where it would acclimatize overnight:
I’m not sure how the standard “acclimatize for 24 hours before uncrating” practice originated, but I suspect that it’s not strictly necessary in most cases.1 Because the Folger, the truck, and the Jewish Museum all have climate control, not much about the environmental conditions would have changed. Even if there had been a radical difference in humidity between the painting and the gallery, 24 hours probably wouldn’t be enough time for meaningful moisture equilibration anyway, since the painting was well-insulated in a double crate lined with thick sheets of polyethylene foam.2
Installation began at 2:30pm the next day, a process that always seems like a light-bulb joke, “how many professionals does it take to hang a painting?” In addition to the courier (me, in this case) the process is overseen by the borrowing institution’s registrar3 and the exhibition curator. Two or three art handlers do the actual work of getting the painting out of its crate and moving it around, and a lighting technician stands by ready to adjust the lamps and light levels as needed. Sometimes there are one or two couriers from other institutions looking on.
As soon as the painting comes out of the crate, it gets “conditioned” – exhibition jargon for documenting its current physical condition:
Using the condition report made by Folger conservators before the painting was crated as my guide, I looked over every inch of the painting and its frame in direct light and raking light to make sure that any known issues hadn’t worsened, and no new ones had appeared. The registrar then does the same thing. It’s pretty much like looking over a rental car in order to note any dings and scratches on the diagram before driving off. Luckily, the Sieve Portrait is in pretty good shape and fared well on the journey: a straightforward case of checking the “no change” box on the form and signing our names.
And then… [insert anticipation-building drum roll using your imagination because I'm not interested in messing with sound files] the actual hanging!
Following the hanging, art handlers use a level to make sure that the painting is technically straight:
What this usually reveals is that although the picture is straight, it doesn’t look straight thanks to variations in ceiling height, wall decoration, or frame ornamentation. Accordingly, the final check is by eye rather than by laws of physics:
After that, the painting is spot-lit, light levels are checked, security is verified, and the courier’s job is done.
And that’s the basic story of Elizabeth Goes to New York. It lacks just one thing: motivation. Why on earth would The Jewish Museum want to borrow the Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth for an exhibition of Hebrew manuscripts from the Bodleian? It turns out there’s a really good reason, and it’s not that the highlights of her dress happen to be the exact same color as the exhibition’s walls. The exhibition strives to teach visitors about the cross-cultural influences of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity in the medieval period, and the importance of Hebrew texts to scholars in the medieval and early modern times. It culminates with “Sir Thomas Bodley and Queen Elizabeth I” in a room presided over by the Sieve portrait, with a portrait of Sir Thomas Bodley (1545–1613) holding a Hebrew manuscript on the adjacent wall. Bodley re-founded the university library at Oxford shortly after he retired from a career in Elizabeth’s diplomatic service.
The Sieve portrait hangs next to Queen Elizabeth’s Book of Oxford, an illustrated guided tour of the university prepared as a gift to the queen during her visit in 1566, part of a “royal progress” that summer. The manuscript is open to the frontispiece, a tree representing Hebrew Learning followed by a Latin poem:
In the poem, Regius Professor of Hebrew Thomas Neale (ca. 1519 – ca. 1590) praises Elizabeth in advance for watering the roots of the tree planted by her father – Henry VIII’s generous support of the university included the foundation of the Regius Professorship in Hebrew. The manuscript as a whole provides an illustrated tour of the university, with an emphasis on philanthropy and its benefits to giver and receiver.4
The exhibition opened this past Friday, and is on view until February 3, 2013. Note, however, that the museum is closed today and tomorrow for Rosh Hashanah. Shanah tovah!
- Not necessary for climate reasons, that is. It’s often necessary for the courier to acclimatize, as it were. If you’ve come off an overnight truck-trip or flight, you’re in not in good shape to make responsible decisions about handling the piece. [↩]
- Constrained panel paintings like the Sieve portrait are particularly susceptible to damage from expansion and contraction caused by extreme moisture absorption and loss. For more information on the time scale of humidity equilibration, see “Drawing the Line on Acceptable Relative Humidity Fluctuations.” For a brief history of the emergence of “traditional” tight climate standards and how they have been successfully challenged by materials research, see for example “Applying Science to the Question of Museum Climate.” [↩]
- At the Folger, the registrar is the person who registers readers coming to use the collection; the registrar at a museum or art gallery is a collection registrar, keeping track of what each work is and where it’s located. [↩]
- Spoiler alert: the hints didn’t work. [↩]