by Miriam Hay
As someone doing three weeks work experience at The British Postal Museum & Archive, I was given the opportunity to attend the first two days of the de-installation of the recent Empire Mail exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery. It was a unique chance to see behind the scenes of the BPMA at the work that goes into such an event, much of which will go unnoticed by the public if all goes to plan.
The speed with which the exhibition began to be disassembled was quite surprising – by the time I arrived at 10am on Monday it appeared to be the second week at work, rather than only an hour’s worth. Some objects like the telegraph table and blue air mail box had already been removed, and tables for the wrapping of objects and the conservators had been set up instead.
The GPO Morris Minor van which took centre stage in the exhibition was dispatched that morning, steered slowly out through the narrow entrances with a member of BPMA staff at the wheel. Its accompanying motorcycle followed early the next day. Even after nearly eighty years since their construction the engines had been leaking oil into the drip trays underneath, serving as a reminder that these are not just static and unchanging museum pieces, but were once working machines.
Some pieces featured in the display were to be transported a little further than others: the stamps from the Royal Philatelic Collection are to be returned to their home in St James’s Palace. The large printing press, which had to be carefully lifted back onto its pallet base before having its crate built around it, would be collected and taken back to Holland.
A lot of thought has to go into displaying all the objects, for example using glass that is both low reflective for easier viewing, and UV filtering to protect the artefacts inside. As much effort has to be spent on removing them, with conservators checking the condition of each object against the original paperwork. Some of the stamps shown were extremely valuable and great care had to be taken in de-installing them.
One of the most time consuming jobs, surprisingly, was removing and packing the information panels, graphics and captions. Attached to the walls with Velcro (another surprise!), they were quick to tear down, being careful not to be squashed by some of the larger ones, but most had to then be individually wrapped in several layers of plastic packaging. While overhead other visitors were viewing the art in the gallery above that opened out onto the exhibition space, we made our way through several enormous rolls of bubble wrap and tape, packaging up frames and the legs from display cases as well.
I certainly will not be able to go to another exhibition now without picturing all the hard work put into it, both before and after, or without trying to peer behind the information panels to see what was used to attach them!