Conservation In Action: courier trip to USA with items from the Wellcome Library’s Asian Collection

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By | From the Collections

Since 2011, as part of the Preservation and Conservation team, I have been focusing on the preparation of items from the Wellcome Library for internal exhibitions in the Wellcome Collection temporary exhibition space or for external loans, which have seen borrowers from the UK, Europe and overseas.

As an Exhibition Conservator, I work closely with the Library Exhibition Liaison Officer, discussing condition environmental parameters and display requirements for every single item going to be displayed. The Library receives numerous loan requests per year with peaks of workload during the two months before openings, which fall mostly during Spring and Autumn.

After the first approach from the borrowing institution and confirmation of the list of objects, I start with assessment of the physical condition of each item. Following verification that the items are stable enough to travel and to be exhibited, I continue with their documentation on the Conservation Database and if necessary, I proceed with conservation treatment in order to stabilise their physical condition and improve manual handling. I also arrange the framing and display mounting of items with the valuable help of some external art technicians.

Conservation of Islamic Call. 90, “A saying of the Prophet Muhammad”.
Tear repairing and flattening of object from the back.

Part of my role as Exhibits Conservator is also to accompany the items and install them at the borrowing venue. Last February, I accompanied nine items from our Asian Collection to the Brigham Young University Museum in Provo, Utah, USA.

Items documented and mounted at the Conservation studio before despatch

My journey started on a Tuesday morning, coincidentally on St. Valentine’s Day. Myself and the other two girls couriering from the British Museum and the Ashmolean, Oxford were hoping that as a consolation for the 3.45 am start that morning, we would be given a red rose… but that sadly did not happen. Exhausted, we were instead promptly driven down to a Heathrow Airport warehouse following the climate-controlled, AirRide vehicle that was transporting objects to Utah from four UK institutions (Wellcome Library, British Museum, V&A and Ashmolean).

Two empty crates arrived at the Wellcome Library. The Library material was individually soft- wrapped, carefully placed inside the crate and surrounded with layers of Polyurethane foam
The pallet containing the crates was loaded onto the cargo plane ready to travel to Los Angeles

Brigham Young Museum of Art (BYU) was hosting an exhibition of Islamic Art for the first time, following a long tradition of exhibitions relating to Christianity. The exhibition “Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture” at BYU is the first venue of a touring show that will also exhibit at Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Newark Museum and the Portland Art Museum. It showcases more than 250 objects from various lenders in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. Curated by the art historian and artist Sabiha Al Khemir, the show spans the entire main floor of the Brigham Museum.

After an incredibly long journey of thirty hours, we finally arrived at Provo at 1 am. The next morning my day at the Museum was spent checking the condition of the items after all that travelling, noting any possible changes and working together with the local Museum art technician on the display, which had been discussed and agreed previously between the two institutions. Materials such as oil paintings, drawings and prints are often displayed framed and hung on wall using security fixings whereas archival flat items, manuscripts and books are usually placed carefully into showcases and either laid flat (sometimes on a barrier sheet of archival board or Mylar®/ Melinex® polyester film) or laid on custom made Perspex supports.

One of the highlights from the Wellcome Library was Arabic MS 1011, “Scroll of Prayers signed by Zayn al-‘Abidin”, which was beautifully displayed on its own, exhibiting a meter and a half of its length.

Marking the base of the showcase with tape in preparation for the display of Arabic MS 1011, “Scroll of Prayers signed by Zayn al-‘Abidin”.
Detail of the mounting system which prevents the item rolling back on itself.

Other Wellcome Library items were sharing cases with objects from other lending institutions. The curator and couriers were all working together to make sure that the objects were placed perfectly inside the case. When the final display was refined, the showcases were secured in place, locked and witnessed before our departure.

After returning to London, the Library Exhibition Liaison Officer and I received an email from the BYU Museum Registrar, thanking us for all of our helpful support during the preparation and build-up to the loan and for the work on the installation day. The opening day was a great success and the exhibition is still being well attended.

Marking the space on a showcase for the final display solution


Arabic MS 300, “Map of the World”, was placed on a tilted support to facilitate reading.
The Perspex lid of the showcase was carefully lowered before the final locking.
External view of Brigham Young University Museum of Fine Art


Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture, Brigham Young University Museum of Fine Art, Provo, Utah, 24th February to 29th September 2012
Author: Luana Franceschet

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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