A silver Roman pepper pot in the shape of a woman’s head is one of the 100 objects being used to tell the history of the world in an exhibition at Manarat Al Saadiyat from Wednesday. Moving the precious artefacts from the UK to Abu Dhabi is a major operation, as Nick Leech reports
Travel isn’t easy for a 1,600 year old Empress
The matron from Hoxne has travelled more than 5400 kilometres to come from London to Abu Dhabi but with her animated features, ornate jewellery and with her eyes, lips, and dress picked out in gold, she would grace any event in any city.
Like all VIPs ‘the Empress’, as she has been known for most of her life, was accompanied on her latest journey by a sizeable entourage, but given her age and size this is hardly surprising. After all, the matron of Hoxne is only 8cm tall and is at least 1600 years old.
An extremely rare piperatorium, or Roman pepper pot, the exhibit is one of the original centurions selected by the British Museum for A History of the World in 100 Objects, the radio programme that was first broadcast by the BBC in 2010 and which then became a best-selling book of the same name. Tomorrow, the world’s first ever A History of the World in 100 Objects exhibition, a collaboration between Tourism and Culture Authority Abu Dhabi and the British Museum (BM), will open at Manarat Al Saadiyat with the Empress retaining pride of place.
Getting the piperatorium to gallery one at Manarat Al Saadiyat required a team of curators, museum assistants, object handlers, conservators, exhibition designers, and specialist shippers. It also required Lindsey Breaks, the British Museum’s project co-ordinator for international travelling exhibitions.
“Moving these things around the world is one of the most dangerous things you could do,” she explains. “My job is to ensure that everything arrives and gets back in one piece.”
Without Breaks’ coordination, travelling exhibitions such as A History of the World in 100 Objects would never get off the ground. As well as looking after the objects in her charge, Breaks is responsible for managing the complex behind-the-scenes logistical processes the public rarely sees.
“I am a facilitator. I’m responsible for everything from putting object lists together, getting everything conservation assessed, ordering the crates and packing materials, making sure everything is packed correctly, organising the shipping, liaising with local venues and local conservators, planning the installation schedule, and getting everybody in the right place at the right time.”
Breaks is however, more than just a museum-grade relocations expert. A specialist in ancient history, she worked at Birmingham Museum and Galleries before spending almost six years in the BM’s prehistory and Europe department. As the project co-ordinator for international travelling exhibitions, Breaks now spends much of her time accompanying objects and installing exhibitions around the world and this is her second major show in Abu Dhabi. Breaks was also responsible for coordinating and installing Treasures of the World’s Cultures, the previous TCA Abu Dhabi/BM exhibition that was held at Manarat Al Saadiyat in 2012.
“This is the joy of the job for me,” says Breaks, holding the diminutive Roman pepper pot in her gloved hand. “Bringing everything together after months and months of organisation and finally seeing things that were previously only a thumbnail image on a list. I am always, always surprised. The objects are even more beautiful than I thought.”
Before any object can even leave the BM, Breaks has to liaise with the curators in each of the museum’s departments to make sure they are happy for it to leave.
“After the idea [for an exhibition] has been put together and an object list has been chosen, that’s where we come in,” she explains. “We contact all of the departments, make sure that they are happy for the objects to be gone for the duration of the exhibition, get them conservation assessed, and then we start working on the logistics. How will each object be crated, how will they travel?”
Before the exhibits are packed, a member of each department conducts an assessment of each object, producing a report that records the object’s condition and when the exhibits arrive at their destination, Breaks and her team then check every object to make sure that it matches the report. “We make sure that no damage has occurred during transit and that nothing has deteriorated. We then have to get the conservator here to do the same and agree the condition on arrival so that when we collect the objects at the end, there’s no contention about when and where any damage has occurred.”
Despite the fact that A History of the World in 100 Objects has been the subject of a major BBC radio series and a book, the Manarat Al Saadiyat exhibition is the first time that all of the objects have been collected together as an exhibit in one place. As the exhibition’s curator, Becky Allen explains, roughly half are objects in the show are from the original 100. Largely due to practical considerations, the other 50 per cent of the objects had to be replaced.
“There were many things in the radio series that were completely inappropriate to lend. One is the colossal statue of Ramesses II which wouldn’t even fit through the door. It’s almost part of the architecture of the British Museum. Another was the Silk Princess Painting, which is a Chinese painting on wood, that couldn’t be more delicate. We don’t even have it on display at the museum, let alone packing it up for a travelling exhibition. When making those selections we had to think well, what can’t we lend and what can we use instead?”
As Breaks concedes, the scale and scope of the show has presented its own challenges.
“This exhibition has been complicated because we’ve had to coordinate 90 curators across the whole museum and bring a team together from each of the departments to make sure that they are all in the right place at the right time.”
Apart from Breaks, who has an art handling background, five museum assistants travelled from London, including members of the museum’s heavy objects handling team, as well as representatives of the Egyptian, African/Oceania and Asian departments, each of whom is specially trained to handle the objects in their care.
“Somebody from the Asian department is specially trained to handle and hang scrolls, whereas somebody in the Egypt department would be specially trained to handle mummies or papyrus,” says Breaks. When it comes to handling objects such as Japanese Samurai swords however, the assistant’s training extends beyond mere conservation and health and safety.
“Apart from the fact that it would cut your hand off, we can’t just handle a Japanese Samurai sword. The curator has to have special training to handle it with the appropriate respect. That’s contingent on the object being loaned in the first place.”
It has taken Breaks’ team more than 11 working days to install the 100 plus exhibits that will make up the show and even though the case which holds the pepper pot is one of the last to be installed, the atmosphere of carefully controlled chaos that fills the exhibition hall only serves to accentuate the delicacy of the exhibits. As Breaks places the Empress into her temporary resting place, the sound of drills and the reversing alarm of a cherry picker echo off the walls, making the gallery feel more like a building site than a museum.
“It’s not just a case of lifting and moving,” Breaks explains. “Each object also comes with its own set of issues and even the person who drives the forklift truck has to be experienced in moving works of art. They also have to speak English.”
Thanks to the many giant pieces of statuary that have been included in A History of the World in 100 Objects, the forklift team have been kept particularly busy and the inclusion of a car as object 101, designed by the UAEU student Reem Al Marzooqi, meant that the exhibition’s heavy lifting had to be done first before the team could even consider moving smaller and more delicate objects into place.
“We tried to start at the beginning and put the heaviest objects in first so we could get the forklifts out of the way” says Breaks. “Laying the carpet has to be one of the last things that happens otherwise it would be ruined.”
As with so many of the exhibits, the Empress’s issues don’t just stem from her age but from her materiality as well. The pepper pot is silver-gilt.
“The main problem with objects like this is tarnishing, so we have to make sure that anything we pack them in and anything we put in the display case is inert. Things like MDF, which a lot of case inserts are made of, will give off gases that can create a toxic environment that will tarnish objects really badly.”
To avoid these problems, any MDF that is used in the display cases is sealed in foil and everything is then wrapped in fabric. While it was en route from London, the pepper pot was transported in a special packing case filled with an absorbent material that controls the relative humidity inside the case.
“We keep the humidity in the case at a certain level and then the environment in the gallery has to be matched to the object’s needs. If the environment in the gallery wasn’t regulated, then we’d have to keep the object in its packing case and move it very quickly into the display.”
Finally, with the help of one of her colleagues from the museum, Breaks installs the Empress inside the airtight case that will be her home for the next few weeks. It is curator Becky Allen’s hope that elderly lady, alongside a 9th century ivory panel from the Carolingian Empire and a stone Buddha’s head from Java, will engage the public in a conversation about taste, trade, and the human form.
“The case is a nice microcosm for the whole exhibition,” Allen explains. “There’s an attempt to be very global, there’s an attempt to say that there are many stories that remind us that we share a great degree of similarity, whether you are from Roman Britain, or Java, or the Carolingian empire and that the human desire to make beautiful things, the challenges we face and our hopes and desires don’t really change.”