By Charlotte Gay, Display and Exhibitions Trainee 

Hi, I’m Charlotte – Display and Exhibitions Trainee at Colchester + Ipswich Museums.

Unlike the many old and wonderful things we have on display here at Ipswich, I am a relatively new addition to the museum. I joined the team at the end of October last year and was lucky enough to spend the first few weeks of my traineeship helping with the installation of Ipswich’s biggest exhibition yet, Kiss & Tell: Rodin and Suffolk Sculpture.

As a Trainee, I was given an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the installation process from beginning to end and learned a lot about what it takes to make a successful exhibition! Here are a few snapshots of how Kiss & Tell came together.

Out with the old 

Before any of the sculptures or artworks could be installed, the exhibition team’s first job was to prepare the Wolsey Art Gallery at Christchurch Mansion (affectionately named the ‘WAG’ by museum staff.)

This meant deinstalling the Sudbourne exhibition which had been on display from March – September 2018, as well as the gallery’s permanent collection of paintings by artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable. The majority of these were transported with care to the museum’s stores, however a couple of the artworks were moved upstairs where they are now on show within the Suffolk Artists Gallery at Christchurch Mansion. A few works by Constable would eventually be hung back in the WAG as part of the Kiss and Tell exhibition.

With the artworks safely moved, the walls of the gallery were stripped of any old labels, signs and vinyl, and given a couple of coats of Hague Blue paint. Now the gallery was prepped and primed and work on the installation could finally begin.

In with the new

Precise measurements had been taken of all the sculptures, which art curator, Emma, had chosen to feature in the exhibition. A floorplan had been drawn-up back in July by Emma in collaboration with the Exhibitions team which mapped out where each of the objects would go and how they would be displayed (e.g. on a free-standing plinth or inside a display case). Masking tape was used to recreate this plan on the gallery floor in order to get a better idea of how the space would eventually look.

Next, a variety of plinths were made to different height and width specifications. For some objects weight was also taken into consideration, such as for the 264kg marble sculpture of Mrs. Charles Hunter (1906) on loan from the Tate. In this case, a reinforced steel plinth was commissioned to bear the weight of the sculpture. This was then covered by an Z-MDF sleeve and several coats of white paint were applied to all the free-standing plinths.

Plinths are just one way in which items in an exhibition can be displayed. For some, more delicate items, glass evolution cases are needed for both conservation and security. As I soon discovered, building an evolution case is no easy feat – it required the strength of the whole Exhibitions team with help from Visitor Services staff to put them all together.

Once plinths and cases were moved into their correct positions and glass cases and shelves cleaned, it was the job of the museum’s Conservator, Bob, to condition them. Essentially, this means monitoring humidity and temperature levels inside the air-tight cases using a specialist device called a relative humidity and temperature data logger. It is important for objects to be appropriately conserved even whilst they are on display. For objects such as Rodin’s cast-bronze Crouching Woman (1882), an ideal relative humidity and temperature reading would be 45%. A reading that is either too high, too low or fluctuates dramatically can potentially cause deterioration to objects and so it is important that cases are kept at optimum levels.

Read Part 2 here to find out how the stage was set for Kiss & Tell!

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