Journal Articles

Engineered to perfection: Custom-made storage at Queensland Museum

Loading a FN Type 1500 car (H47630) into a pantechnicon. The stillage enables the vehicle to be raised with a forklift and tailgate. Image courtesy of the Queensland Museum. (Photo: Peter Waddington)

In early 2011, a decision was made by the Board of the Queensland Museum to invest in a major refurbishment of the Transport Gallery, an exhibition space at Queensland Museum South Bank campus dedicated to large transport objects.

A project was developed to decant the 21 significant objects of various types, sizes and weights to an offsite store. This list includes a three tonne Beech Duke aeroplane, a four tonne steam engine, three cars, a fire truck, a bi-plane, the wreckage of a bi-plane, a sailboat and a speedboat.

The exhibition decant commenced in May 2011 and the varied object list underlined the need for careful planning and innovative thinking regarding the methodology of safely moving these objects into storage. This article focuses on the stillages constructed in order to reduce risks to these objects during the project.

Stillages are cradles or skids with sides designed to fit around an object. Their purpose is to securely hold an object during transit or whilst in storage. The majority of the objects were decanted over a period of two weeks, however, the planning and construction of stillages was conducted over the three months prior. The protection of the objects during transit was paramount and Queensland Museum staff scheduled a number of onsite meetings with various company representatives to ensure a clear understanding between all parties with regards to the type of transport required, the roles of the staff and operator and to emphasise the need for care. A number of transport companies were engaged to move the objects, as different transport was required depending on the object. During the planning phase, the need to protect the objects during transit was identified as a key goal, however, opportunities were identified to develop stillages that would also reduce risks to the objects during the decant (prior to the move) as well as have ongoing storage benefits. Key staff from Collection Management, Conservation and the Workshops met and designed custom stillages for all of the objects that could not be moved manually i.e. the larger and/or heavier objects. Some general principles were identified which were engineered into all stillages.

These were the need:

  • to support the object using existing mounts or support points were possible,

  • to reduce or eliminate the need to touch the object during transit,

  • to be stable during transit and storage,

  • to provide a long-term mobile storage solution, and

  • to look professional in case of exhibition and store tours.

Where possible, the objects were moved in a pantechnicon with air-ride suspension. This method of transport shields the objects from the elements during transit and consequently reduces the risk of delay to the project from poor weather. The air-ride ensures the objects do not suffer during the trip. However, other transport was required for the larger objects. For example, the four tonne steam engine was moved on a low loader and a wreck of an Avro bi-plane was transported on a flatbed truck with side curtains. A low loader was required because the height of some objects was close to four meters and using other transport exposed the objects to risk of contacting with powerlines, tree branches and traffic signals. However, using a low loader exposed the objects to the risk of damage from poor weather as well as unforeseen delays to the project. This issue was resolved by completely shrink-wrapping these objects for the journey. This method had the added benefits of helping to stabilise any loose components from wind buffeting, lessened the risk of damage from strapping and meant transport operators were able to handle the objects without nitrile gloves. This is important because the operators were not trained in handling objects and their skill sets needed to be factored into the moves.

Each stillage was engineered and constructed in-house to an individual object’s exact specifications. Whilst this significantly reduces opportunities to reuse the stillage, it means that the object is very well protected. Care was taken to select castors that are lockable, mobile in all directions and rated to slightly higher than the registered object’s weight. This last requirement was because the time to physically weigh each object was not available. The vehicle dimensions and weights were taken from the object’s registration record, however, inaccuracies were identified in some records which added a further complexity to the project. In addition to the general use of multi-directional, load-bearing castors, box steel was used for all frames that had a weight loading of over 250kgs. This material was selected because of its high strength and relatively low weight. The frame was coated in a rust-resistant paint to assist in the long-term protection of the frame as is envisaged that the frames will be stored in non-environmentally controlled storage whilst the object is being exhibited.

The frame was welded with appropriate bracing and support. In addition, care was taken to weld anchor points to the frames that are designed to facilitate strapping the frame, not the object, during transit. Finally, each object was strapped to the frame using metal strapping that was selected for long-term preservation and strength. The strapping was placed around areas of the object that were designed to carry the weight of the object during use e.g. axles and braces. These areas are specifically strengthened and ideal for this purpose. Other objects were designed to be mounted within an object, for example, the aeroplane engines. These engines have long mounting bolts designed to hold the engine against a firewall inside an engine bay. The stillages were designed to hold these objects as they would be mounted in use and so take advantage of the inherent strength of the mounts. Other features that appear on some stillages are docking points into which long, steel handles are mounted. This feature turns the stillage into a large cart and eliminates the need to touch the object as well as facilitates the movement of the object by one person.

The project is considered a great success and Queensland Museum continues to benefit from the investment made into these stillages. The primary requirement of creating a storage system which would significantly reduce the risk of damage to the collection objects during transit was met. However, careful design and planning produced stillages that provide long-term protection to the objects as well as a versatile storage solution for heavy and large objects. A further and immediate result of the project is that Queensland Museum is currently negotiating to lend one of the more significant objects from this collection.

The least concern of this loan is the risk to the object during transit and exhibition and this has associated benefits regarding the ease of negotiating the loan and improved partnering opportunities as well as reduced insurance risk for the borrower.
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Nick Hadnutt is Collection Manager, Cultures & Histories at Queensland Museum & Sciencentre