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This week we spoke to Assistant Curator, Victoria Howarth, who reveals what goes on behind the scenes during the installation of our exhibitions.

It’s a very exciting time at the gallery when we are closed. You may think that nothing much is happening but actually this is probably one of the busiest times, especially for me. Before a new exhibition there's months of planning to make sure that everything is completely ready for the flurry of activity that happens when the works arrive. When they do arrive, we’ve already got a basic layout of the show and know where the paintings are going. We have a computer visualisation programme of a ‘virtual Jerwood Gallery’, which allows us to lay out the gallery spaces and get a good idea of how the hang will look.

We have an excellent team of freelance technicians who work with us during every installation period. Before the van with the artwork arrives, the technicians and myself and other members of staff are waiting with all the documents we need, so as soon as the van arrives, the technicians can help the transportation couriers to bring the works into the building. Sometimes you can need a lot of different equipment if works are large and heavy. We print out screen grabs from the visualisation programme and we use these to guide the technicians, so they know what each work is and exactly where it is going in the gallery. I check the works in as they come off the van, to make sure we have everything we should, for insurance purposes. It’s then quite a long process of noting exactly how everything is packaged and how it all arrived to us, so we can send back the works to the lenders exactly as they arrived at the gallery.

The technicians have a huge range of tasks to do. Working with different technicians over the years, I’ve noticed that most of them are also artists themselves and have years of art handling experience which is extremely helpful. Our technicians work for national galleries too, including Tate, Royal Academy and the Imperial War Museum. They are all amazingly experienced and qualified. The technicians physically bring all the works into the building; they unwrap them and sometimes complete condition checks of the works for us. They note down which packaging and transit frames accompany which painting. This is so when it comes to packing up the works at the end of the show, we’re not searching around for things. The technicians layout the works and move them around into different positions in the gallery, so we can see the works in different configurations if works don’t quite fit where we envisioned they would. Sometimes they help us curate spaces too. They put fixings on the backs of all the works, these are special security fixings so that works cannot be knocked off the wall by accident or stolen, and then they hang them. Everything is hung to a standard line on the wall and that takes quite a long time, measuring and making sure that every work is accurately hung. You can change how paintings or the entire room looks so much, just by moving works slightly closer to one another, or slightly further away from a wall or window.

It’s really important for all museums and galleries to look after works to the best standard and to preserve artworks and objects for future generations. Sometimes people are surprised by how fussy you have to be when handling art works. I used to work at the V&A archives and every item, even those you may think don’t have much value, are handled with the same amount of care, as we can’t second guess what will be significant to future generations.

Condition reports are a very important part of the responsibility that institutions have to the art works and objects to help to preserve them for the future. When the artwork leaves the home of a private lender, or the storage facility that it’s kept in, or the artist’s studio, or another institution, it’s crucial that condition reports are filled out. Often if a work is coming from another institution, they will prepare a condition report before it leaves. They note down exactly how the object looks and if there are any issues with it, if it is damaged in any way. When the work arrives at Jerwood Gallery, I check the work against that report and make a note if anything has changed during transportation. If it is coming from a private lender, or somewhere where they don’t issue condition reports, we create our own report of the objects condition when it arrives here. We take lots of photographs and make lots of notes and repeat the process when it leaves the gallery at the end of the show. This is so that if anything has been damaged at any point, we know when it has happened and can sort it out straight away. It’s a way of making sure that everything is being looked after properly for future generations to enjoy.

During the installation period you find out so much more about the works and artist. We do so much research about the artist and works that are being exhibited here, but often you haven’t physically seen the works before they arrive at the gallery, so that’s quite an amazing, exciting time. Once they are fixed on the wall, you can only see the front of the work but it’s great to get a glimpse of the backs of works. It’s a privilege to be able to see everything when curating a show and exciting to be able to make decisions about what will be seen by visitors.

01 May, 2014
Written by Victoria Howarth