As our Open Treasure exhibition space closes for a week, allowing the Tudors exhibition to move out and Miners: Pitmen, Pride and Prayer to move in, we spoke to Exhibitions Officer Marie-Therese Mayne about the process she and her team goes through each time there’s change on the horizon.
Q: How much planning does it take to organise an exhibition changeover do you reckon?
A: A few weeks in advance, we have to put together a schedule. Because the process involves so many people, some of whom do not work in the Cathedral, we have to have it planned down to the minute. We collaborate with a conservator, so that the items do not get damaged during the changeover, and then there’s the need to speak to external lenders of specific items about how we should handle their items and what it is that we’re going to have to do. Sometimes, if we’ve loaned an item from an external lender, they choose to send a courier to collect the item and observe how it is removed from our display. It’s all about balancing the conditions: the humidity and the temperature have to be closely monitored so that nothing goes wrong.
Q: What would happen if the humidity or temperature changed slightly?
A: It depends on the object. As a rule, we try to have the temperature hovering at around 18 degrees at all times, with leeway for an increase or decrease of 2 degrees if we need. Similarly, with the humidity, we maintain it at 50%, but it can fluctuate comfortably by 5%. As long as the change in humidity or temperature is gradual, the item will be OK, but we tend to worry when the change is a sudden one. When this happens, the object might tear, rip, or crumple if it is paper-based; or a stone or piece of wood might contract and expand too quickly, causes a fracture to occur.
Q: It must be tough to maintain the conditions so tightly during changeover. How do you make sure the objects will be OK?
A: When we close the exhibition for the changeover, we bring in the packing cases for objects we’re displayed on loan from elsewhere at least 24 hours before they are due to be transported. The packing cases acclimatise so that the object’s conditions are as stable as possible during travel. The objects are very sensitive to their environment, so we need to do everything we can to make sure they are not put under undue pressure. When the courier of an external object arrives to collect it, it is only then that we open the case, and the entire process is undertaken as quickly as possible.
Q: It seems like quite a pressurised task! But do you get chance to do some maintenance of your own during changeover too?
A: Yes, we tend to have a bit of a clean. If some objects aren’t moving, we can clean them individually. I’ve got an ostrich feather to clean the Anglo-Saxon stones with, for instance. It is not rough like modern Nylon cloths, and so it won’t scratch the stones. When we remove exhibitions, we can check that everything is in place and dust-free. We get in external contractors, too, who build towers of scaffolding inside the exhibition space in order to clean the out-of-reach areas such as the tops of bookshelves and the lights. It’s a huge operation, but planning it all out beforehand definitely helps. We have between 6,000-20,000 visitors per exhibition, all of whom generate a lot of dust, so cleaning is very important.
Q: And how about when you’re preparing for the next exhibition? What do you need to do for that?
A: After we’ve moved the previous exhibition out, and have cleaned, we start to put lights and mounts in place ready for the new objects. It’s not as simple as it sounds; we have to have made-to-measure mounts for books, specifically angled to support the fragile book spines as they lay open on a particular page for up to three months at a time. And the lighting is vital: if it’s too bright it will damage the books, but if it’s too dull, the exhibition will seem dark and grey to our visitors!
Our next temporary exhibition, Miners: Pitmen, Pride and Prayer, is open from Tuesday 19 June until Saturday 15 September. Find out more at www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/open-treasure