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If it could collect air miles, then some of the material in the Wellcome Library would have a pretty impressive stash of them by now. In 2011, Library material travelled a total of 10,168 miles on its way to and from various different loans to museums around the world.

Countries lent to include The Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland,Germany (on quite a few occasions), France, the Czech Republic and Canada, as well as numerous loans within London and the UK. All of these exhibitions have been temporary,lasting on average around 6 months, and the number of items lent has varied between 1 and 12. Click on the map below for more details:

It’s not just the collections that are well travelled – we send a courier for most of our loans, and Library staff have notched up an impressive 19,928 miles this year in round trips carrying out this important role.

So what exactly is involved in lending the Library’s collections? It all starts with an initial request from the borrowing institution, giving details of the exhibition and what they would like to borrow. Our Conservation department then assess the item(s) to ascertain if they are robust enough for loan, and what, if any, work needs doing to them in order to make them safe for travel and display. After final approval from the Library’s Senior Management Team, there then follows lengthy discussion between the Library’s Exhibition Liaison and the borrower regarding display and security conditions, any costs involved,transport etc.

Couriering has already been mentioned, and this is the area of lending that many find most interesting. It can seem quite glamorous and it’s true that it certainly beats a day in the office, but it can also be very tiring with early starts and many hours of travelling. Professional art handlers are always used to transport loans,and their preferred method of transport within Europe is usually by truck. Therefore, if accompanying a loan to a destination in Europe, the courier will travel in the truck, spending many hours, sometimes even days, on the road. If travelling by air, it is necessary to arrive at the airport hours in advance of the flight in order to witness the crate containing the loan being loaded up. This involves going behind the scenes to the cargo shed at the airport, donning a high-vis jacket and having your wits about you in order to avoid the many forklift trucks and lorries that work in these areas.

Once the courier reaches their destination with the loan safely in tow, they must witness it being unloaded and securely stored into the borrowing institution’s premises, and then they will usually return the following day to install the item(s). Installation involves witnessing the loan being unpacked, condition checking it to ensure it hasn’t been damaged en route, and then supervising its placing in the display case or hanging on the wall. Depending on the number of items being lent, and how complicated they are to install,this process can take anything from an hour to a couple of days. Then it’s back to the UK, with a de-brief on the trip when the courier returns to work. The whole process then takes place again, but in reverse, when it is time for the loan to be returned.

With requests already received from various museums in the USA,Spain and UK, 2012 looks set to be another busy year for the loan of Wellcome Library material.

Author: Rowan De Saulles

Natalie Pollecutt

Natalie Pollecutt is Library Systems Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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