Travelling with treasure: an epic courier journeyOctober 22, 2012 About my museum job, Blogs
For the next seven weeks, we’ll be serialising our Registrar Nickos Gogolos’s recent travels to Russia. Here we go…
There are many aspects of museum business that I could not have imagined when I decided I wanted to work in one, many years ago. None can be quite so exciting, satisfying, exhausting, mundane, anxiety-inducing and nerve-wrecking, all at the same time, as escorting the museum’s collections going on loan to another country or even continent.
Couriering, as it is known in the museum world, can otherwise be described as exclusive nursing to an important patient, in our case the museum object, overseeing its welfare while in emergency transit. It demands rounded knowledge of the object’s nature and condition, the well-honed skills of a seasoned diplomat and a balanced assessment of responsibility towards the object, personal liability, the human factor and the prevailing circumstances. Good knowledge of geography, acceptable cargo forwarding firms, safe routes, types of aircrafts, availability of flights, border controls and customs procedures also count as bonus skills.
The art courier more than any other type of traveler has to be primarily healthy and able to look after oneself, flexible, calm, patient, assertive but well-mannered, streetwise, well-organised, able to anticipate difficulties and prepared to think on one’s feet.
What follows is an account of a courier trip from London to Moscow, by road, in a 2.5 tonne, 19-metre long and four-metre high VOLVO truck and trailer, with a driver from Holland and a driver from Surinam. The occasion? The Museum of London has agreed to lend twenty objects from our Post-Medieval collections to the Golden Age of the English Court: From Henry VIII to Charles I exhibition, organised by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Moscow Kremlin Museums.
“Why by road?”, you will ask. Well, there are some objects in this shipment, which when crated, are too big to fit in any aircraft flying from London to Moscow. There is a London-based fine art shipper involved and a European one with offices and trucks in Holland, Finland and Russia (this is important).
So let the Voyage begin…
Day 1: The taxi arrived three minutes early at 8.07am. I had got up over an hour beforehand.
We are in Deptford; the destination is Leyton. The driver asks me if I go there often and therefore know of a quick route. I declined and simultaneously felt guilty for not being a frequenter of Leyton. No reason. As we go through the Blackwell tunnel I notice, for the first time, the green signs that indicate at frequent intervals the distance to either exit of the tunnel. I have a feeling of foreboding even as I am still half-asleep. I need a coffee, if I am going to be any good at this… Ooops, we go by the Olympic Park and the new red Anish Kapoor tower; mixed, very mixed, feelings awaken.
9am: At our shipper’s warehouse I meet Kees (from Holland) and Kenneth (from Surinam – small country in South America, google map it), the art handlers/drivers I will spend the next six days with in the Dutch truck. They are very smiley and nice. All the crates containing objects from the Museum of London and three other lending institutions are loaded. I supervise and notice that not all crates have marked weights on them, a requirement of Russian Customs. Apparently, if the weight at export is different by as little as 5% from the declared weight at import, they can hand-search all crates and we are in trouble… But it is an incredibly busy morning at the warehouse, due to the Frieze Art Fair taking place next week, and international trucks are queuing up to load or unload. The warehouse manager is adamant that they have no time to weigh my crates and our truck must get going quickly. I call the shipper’s office and get assurances. Kenneth checks all the customs paperwork; the object list is translated in Russian and all details have to match down to the comma. He tells me that another truck that left London a day earlier with more loans to the same exhibition, with which we will rendezvous in Helsinki, was delayed at Customs in Dover for over six hours. That feeling of foreboding again and I tell him to take as long as he needs to check….
12pm: The crates are secured, the A/C system is working at 19 C (at least the conservators will be happy), the truck and trailer locked and we depart for Dover. The cabin is very clean and ergonomically designed but just about big enough for three people so, I am thinking, the two drivers will have to become my best friends for the next week. There simply isn’t room for any disagreement… I fall asleep for a bit.
3pm: At Dover we find out that the customs agent for non-EU shipments has moved to Folkestone. We drive there.
8.30pm: Our paperwork is customs cleared and the truck is hermitically sealed by Customs. Yes, it took this long! At least I have kept up with my emails. Two things I will quickly forget: the horrible toilets and the sandwich I was forced to eat in absence of any decent lunch facility (the first time I have fast food in about 15 years). Thank goodness for some fruit and nuts I brought with me from home. And then more bad news: an accident in the Channel Tunnel forces us to divert back to Dover. We will catch the boat rather than the train and tickets have been booked for the truck and us by the shipper.
10.30pm: There are hundreds of trucks moving or waiting to move at Dover. It is incredible how many goods (produce, supplies, equipment, including art) moves between Britain and the Continent! The boat finally moves and we arrive in Calais in record time. It is by now 1am local time. We start driving to our final destination for today, a small business park hotel near Brussels airport. It is raining cats and dogs.
4am: The truck is locked in our European shipper’s secure warehouse and we get to the hotel. I go straight to bed.
Today’s count of countries – four: England, France, Flanders (not entirely a separate country), Belgium