Mapping the road: Documenting travelling exhibitions

Australian portraits 1880–1960on display at UQ Art Museum, Brisbane Photos: Carl Warner

Over the last three years, as a member of the National Gallery of Australia Travelling Exhibitions team, I have travelled to major cities and regional towns around the country. In 2011 this included the management and installation of two very different travelling exhibitions: Australian portraits 1880–1960: paintings from the National Gallery of Australia collection and Space invaders: australian.street.stencils.posters.paste-ups.zines.stickers

Over the last three years, as a member of the National Gallery of Australia Travelling Exhibitions team, I have travelled to major cities and regional towns around the country. In 2011 this included the management and installation of two very different travelling exhibitions: Australian portraits 1880–1960: paintings from the National Gallery of Australia collection and Space invaders: australian.street.stencils.posters.paste-ups.zines.stickers

 These particular exhibition schedules included eight venues, over 30,000km of travel by road and air, more than 350 works of art and teams of curators, conservators and installers.

While this experience increased my frequent flyer points exponentially and had me sitting in trucks long enough to sing along to the soundtracks of most of our carrier drivers, it also highlighted the extent and importance of sound documentation required to make these exhibitions work.

For more than 20 years, the National Gallery has toured its exhibitions to audiences in remote, regional and metropolitan areas throughout Australia and internationally. Successfully planning and delivering this number of installations and demounts requires consistent communication, thorough documentation and tried and tested procedures. Australian portraits 1880–1960 and Space invaders: australian.street.stencils.posters.paste-ups.zines.stickers are used here as case studies to show the documentation methods and strategies used by the National Gallery’s Travelling Exhibitions team to achieve this success.

Australian portraits 1880–1960 featured 54 framed paintings of various sizes and weights. Some of the works were unglazed, others required security fittings and some were very heavy, requiring at least two handlers, despite not being very large. The first venue was also the opening venue for the exhibition. The itinerary scheduled the exhibition to seven venues over 20 months and, for the safety of the works, the efficiency of the freight schedule and overall budget, the turn-around between venues was 2–3 weeks. Each transport leg was accompanied by a courier and security escort, a travelling exhibitions staff member was present at every installation and demount and a paintings conservator travelled to every second or third venue to conduct mid-tour checks.

Space invaders: australian.street.stencils.posters.paste-ups.zines.stickers included over 300 works on paper. Of these, the majority were framed, but a number were unframed paste-ups that used Velcro to secure them to the wall. Some works were also very large, consisting of multiple components that required four to six people to prepare and install them. One particular work, by the artist Nails, was especially complicated requiring two people to work on it solidly for a minimum of two days.

Other implications for Space invaders included a non-conventional layout where the framed works were hung in clusters, and spanning low and high along the walls. The exhibition design required the use of scaffolding and elevated work platforms, and also incorporated a film component, iPads requiring Wi-Fi connections and a ‘chill-out’ area where audiences were able to sit and flick through zines from the exhibition – and add some of their own.

The Space invaders itinerary included three venues over 12 months – and the exhibition was displayed at the National Gallery prior to going on tour. It did not require a courier or security escort, but did have a National Gallery Travelling Exhibitions project officer and conservator travel to each of the venues to work on the installation and demount.

Two very different exhibitions, both released in the first few months of 2011 and both with concurrent tours. While there were the changing factors of venues, venue staff, National Gallery staff and external influences such as rapid changes in weather and climate conditions, the fundamentals behind the planning methodology and documentation for each exhibition were the exactly the same.

This paper discusses this methodology and the documentation in three parts:

  • Planning
  • Implementation
  • Evaluation

Planning a travelling exhibition

The planning stage of a National Gallery travelling exhibition will usually start 18–24 months out from the date of despatch. The Travelling Exhibitions team uses a critical path to map the project management for each exhibition. Essentially, it is a gant chart that lists the process, the deadlines and the stakeholders required to successfully prepare and launch the exhibition at each venue.

The critical path follows the procedures and actions prior to the exhibition’s despatch from the National Gallery, through its tour to each venue and finally its closure and evaluation.

These procedures and actions include:

  • Scoping and early identification of risks and controls
  • Meetings with internal and external stakeholders
  • Tracking of correspondence to National Gallery staff and tour venues
  • Tracking of the exhibition’s conservation and registration requirements
  • Consultation with tour venues and internal stakeholders for the risk assessment
  • Tracking of the development of the exhibition’s branding, its marketing and sponsorship opportunities, promotional plans and the production and delivery of promotional material to tour venues
  • Tracking of loan agreements and venue contracts
  • Tracking of the exhibition budget
  • Following up on exhibition visitation, final reporting and evaluationn
  • EvaluDeadlines for decisions including final checklists, key image lists and exhibition designtion

In its format, the critical path is an Excel spreadsheet divided first by exhibition, then by task, then by tour venue. This format is printed in hard copy for the project files, and the actions and their deadlines are then imported into staff Outlook calendars, with reminders and alarms. The soft copy versions are also stored on the Gallery’s central hard drive, so they can be accessed by the Travelling Exhibitions team.

Other documentation essential to the planning stage are the standard facility reports, risk assessments, venue contracts and venue reports. The standard facility reports (SFRs) are used as resources to inform itinerary development, risk assessments and for the ongoing monitoring of potential venues. The National Gallery team regularly works with venues to keep up-to-date SFRs and, along with the Registration and Conservation departments, keep a register of these to ensure the most current information is sourced when choosing appropriate tour venues.

The risk assessments are prepared in consultation with National Gallery Conservation, Security, Registration, Curatorial and Management. These documents assess the risks associated with the overall exhibition, individual works and specific venue issues. Once prepared and checked by all contributors, the original risk assessments are then signed by each of the internal stakeholders and also stored in a central location for expedient access by the Travelling Exhibitions team and other relevant National Gallery staff.

The venue contracts outline in detail the agreed terms under which the venue takes the exhibition. In triplicate, the venue contracts specify exhibition dates, agreed costs, agreed conditions for the exhibition’s security, display and storage (this may vary for each venue), agreed marketing and sponsorship requirements, agreed numbers for educational and promotional material and the loan agreement (prepared by the National Gallery registration team). A draft version of the venue contract is sent to each venue in advance of the final version, in order for both parties to discuss the agreed terms, and allow time for questions and concerns to be worked out before the final binding agreement is signed.

And finally, venue reports are written by the relevant Travelling Exhibitions team member at the end of each install and demount. Teamed with any conservators’ reports, these provide information on the venue, for internal use. This documentation allows us to track more day-to-day issues regarding crate access, storage, installation requirements, personnel and any other details that might be useful for future installs and handover notes.

Implementation of a travelling exhibition

The methodology for the implementation of each exhibition includes all the documentation previously discussed, but also breaks down – into bite-size chunks – the various tasks that need to take place along with the required knowledge to perform them. This separation of information also allows for manageable dissemination to the appropriate people involved. The list of documents could go on forever and, while not going into detail on every point, each document encompasses its part of the formula for a successful exhibition tour.

The following documents form the conversation with each venue prior to their receiving the exhibition. Some are then taken on the road to be handed to and discussed with exhibition staff directly involved with installing the show.

  • Climate charts for temperature and humidity levels at tour venues are reviewed to inform risk assessment and planning. Getting these in advance helps the National Gallery work with tour venues to ensure each has and can maintain the appropriate environmental conditions to receive the exhibition.
  • Floor plans are requested in advance to work out a preliminary layout and prepare for installation.
  • Tour manuals are prepared for each exhibition and are sent a few weeks prior to the exhibition’s arrival at the venue. This manual is also used by Travelling Exhibitions staff while on the road as it outlines:
    • General information and stakeholder contacts
    • Installation schedules and itineraries
    • Crate statistics and checklists with images
    • Display furniture and material (including wall texts, title wall and works labels)
  • Security guidelines
  • Media information and sponsor acknowledgment requirements
  • Education material and publications
  • Questionnaire asking for feedback on the exhibition and overall service
  • And we throw in an Allen key for good measure!
  • Priority lists are confirmed by the exhibition’s curator and then personally handed to the registrar or exhibition manager at each venue to include in the venue’s disaster management file.
  • Job Safety Analyses are prepared by National Gallery staff for the handling of specific works. These are included in the tour manual and discussed with staff onsite at each venue prior to the works’ installation.
  • Condition reports travel with the exhibition and copies of the signed spread sheet brought back to the National Gallery Conservation staff after each installation and demount.
  • And the team are also travel consultants!! All National Gallery staff who travel with the exhibition (be they curators, conservators or installation staff) receive a travel briefing pack that includes the itinerary and travel documents as well as the exhibition checklist, crate list, risk assessment, WH&S is this what is called occupational health & safety in other states? and Incident Report Forms and National Gallery travel policies.

Evaluation of a travelling exhibition

The evaluation of each project is paramount to the ongoing support of the National Gallery travelling exhibitions program. Future project funding for the program is heavily reliant on the proven success of current and past projects. One of the tangible ways to show these successes is through exhibition reporting and providing regular status updates on visitor attendance figures and public programs. To underpin the National Gallery’s reporting and grant application process, all venues are asked to provide monthly visitor statistics and a full exhibition report once the show has closed. Venues are also required to complete an evaluation questionnaire, which allow them to provide feedback on the relevant travelling exhibition, the National Gallery’s service in project management and any other feedback on the overall Travelling Exhibitions program. The final report is then disseminated to all internal and external stakeholders.

• • •

In preparing for an exhibition’s tour, there are many months of negotiation and planning with tour venues to ensure the exhibition is suitable for their galleries. These detailed preparations and procedures allow the National Gallery Travelling Exhibitions team to plan for standard conditions and events as well as allowing for contingencies which may impact on the time needed to deliver and install the exhibition.

Of course, every venue is different, and this makes the documentation in the planning stage even more important, as it captures all the variables that need to be taken into account. The ultimate goal behind the National Gallery’s travelling exhibitions program is to provide access to great works of art to as wide an audience as possible and, despite all these variables, maintain a consistent experience along the way.

As an exhibition needs to be tailored individually to each space, each new venue brings new challenges. While relying on established processes, the key to success is flexibility in the face of these challenges and the confidence to respond to changing situations. Challenges run the gamut from less wall space than anticipated, to shortened installation periods, to climate control issues and impending natural disasters – all of which were faced by travelling exhibitions staff in the past year.

In theory, the planning methodology and documentation always works. However, it is when faced with the need to respond to rapid changes and urgent risk management issues that they are truly put to the test.

January 2011 proved a challenging start to the travelling exhibitions calendar. Australian portraits 1880–1960 was due for despatch from the National Gallery and travel via road to launch at its first tour venue, The University of Queensland Art Museum (UQAM) in Brisbane. However, the devastating natural disaster with rapid flooding that hit south-east Queensland and northern New South Wales at this time meant that all the logistical planning for the release of the exhibition had to be changed, and quickly. Consistent correspondence with staff at UQAM at the time revealed that the staff were unaffected, although some were flooded in and without power, the venue had not been affected and, even throughout the intense amount of rain, consistent climate conditions were maintained in the gallery and storage spaces.

With this in mind, both UQAM and the National Gallery were determined to keep the schedule for the exhibition’s launch, and each party did its upmost to ensure it could open on time as planned. To achieve this, National Gallery travelling exhibitions staff met with management and established regular communications with UQAM staff. Freight agents were also consulted, and the National Gallery closely monitored the Bureau of Meteorology website.

During this time, the documents that were developed for the exhibition assisted with these changed circumstances – risk assessments, disaster plans, freight and travel itineraries, crate lists and media strategy – all had to be updated with current information, as the parameters in the schedule changed. Road freight turned into air freight; two trucks became separate shipments over two days; one work could not travel because of its sheer size and due to the height restrictions on domestic airfreight; and a number of works had to be repacked and recrated, to travel on their side, also to meet the restrictions of airfreight. Months of careful planning and scheduling needed to be renegotiated within a matter of days.

Thankfully, the exhibition was delivered and installed without any problem. However, the install period was greatly reduced, and the staff at UQAM very kindly worked over the Australia Day holiday to ensure the exhibition was ready to launch as planned. The outcome was more successful than could have been imagined, and the rain stopped for the opening!

The second venue for Australian portraits was the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin and, believe it or not, the moment the exhibition was packed and on its way by road from Brisbane, Cyclone Carlos formed off the coast from Darwin, causing heavy storms throughout northern Queensland and the Northern Territory. But again, the schedules, the risk assessments and consistent communication between all the stakeholders, meant that appropriate actions were implemented. Fortunately, the cyclone dissipated, and the exhibition opened without issue.

Whilst there is no desire to encounter these situations on a regular basis, there were a number of positive outcomes resulting from the experience. Namely, the National Gallery, and participating tour venues’ risk management systems and disaster preparedness plans had been tested. While the outcome resulted in a review of the National Gallery’s documentation and procedures in response to the events, the strength of the system in place underpinned the success of the actions taken.

Hence, regardless of the occasional impediment, this map demonstrates that with consistent and reliable planning methodology, documentation and communication, teamed with the invaluable assistance of staff at the tour venues and the support of the team back home, the National Gallery fulfils its mission to provide access to the national collection to audiences across the country.

And to prove it, in March this year the National Gallery of Australia’s Travelling Exhibitions program celebrated its nine millionth visitor.


By Georgia Connolly, Project Manager, Exhibitions at the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales.