A Registrar in Minsk

Nicole Simões da Silva is one of two registrars at the Government Art Collection (GAC). As a registrar, her role is to oversee the transportation of the works of art going in and out of our premises. Previously Nicole worked as a registrar at Tate. Some months ago the Government Art Collection was approached by the British Embassy in Minsk with the idea of putting together the first exhibition dedicated to British art in the capital city. In May 2015, Nicole travelled to Minsk to oversee the transportation of the GAC works from the Embassy to the National Art Museum in Belarus.

It was exciting to have the opportunity to go to Minsk. Showing our works in the National Art Museum of Belarus offered the GAC the chance to promote British art and to let a new and different audience see some of our works.
As with so many things, one of the most challenging issues when putting together an exhibition is cost. If we had had to transport the works from Britain, the costs would have been prohibitive. Luckily the GAC was in the unique position of having a selection of 19th century British landscape works on display in the Ambassador’s Residence in Minsk, which we were able to lend to the exhibition.

Once the loan had been agreed in partnership with the National Art Museum and the British Embassy, the exhibition Touch of Britain: 18th–19th centuries of British art was scheduled to open in May of this year.

In early May I found myself sitting in Gatwick departures, boarding card in hand for Minsk. In my luggage was my conservation kit, a huge variety of hanging fittings and an outfit I hoped would pass muster for the press conference.

I was scheduled to be in Minsk for about a week to prepare the works for exhibition, before overseeing their transport and installation in the National Art Museum. I was also going to be there for the press conference and opening event.

My first day was dedicated to condition checking and cleaning the works. This is like taking the car in for its MOT; you never quite know what you might find. Thankfully everything was fairly routine: just some dusting; cleaning the glass on glazed works; disguising the odd scratch on frames containing watercolours and updating the hanging fittings.

A Registrar’s toolkit © Crown Copyright

The essential part of condition checking is documenting the state of the work as you find it on that day. This is done by making detailed photographs and notes of your examination. Anyone who has tried to take a photograph through glass will appreciate this can be quite difficult. I tried out every possible angle and lighting combination – flash, lights on, closed curtains etc.

The following two days were dedicated to the logistical task of packing, transporting and hanging the works. My experience of working with local art handling teams around the world has taught me that the language barrier need not be an issue. Body language, combined with some improvised miming, tends to work surprisingly well.

Although the works were not particularly large or the distance between venues that great, getting them loaded up onto the truck and then into the gallery was slow going. Museum registrars can often be found discussing access issues and the logistical hoops required to get a particular work in or out of a building. This was no exception. The works were carried up and down several flights of stairs and manoeuvred round some tight turns on corridors and landings. At times, relevant staff had to be found to unlock doors.

Once the works were in the gallery we moved on to finalising the layout, which is mainly decided by the exhibition curator. This can be a tricky task as the curator needs to ensure the artworks are displayed in an order that makes sense to the narrative of the exhibition, and to make sure that it works aesthetically.  On top of that the exhibition needs to conform to health and safety regulations and the principles that govern the care of the collection.

Installing the works © Crown Copyright

Moving on to the actual installation or hanging of the artwork is always a rewarding moment: after months of planning you slowly start seeing the exhibition coming together. If you have ever had to measure up a wall to hang a work you will appreciate how many different measurements you need to consider. Excellent arithmetic is definitely a skill that art handlers need to have.

Even when you have measured everything correctly, done all the right sums and the spirit level says the work is hung straight, you occasionally feel it looks crooked. This happens when the frame is not perfectly square and therefore creates the optical illusion that the painting is askew. The visual appearance is the most important, so if it means adjusting the painting and technically the work is left slightly wonky, then so be it.

With all the works hung it was time to tidy the gallery space and ourselves, and get ready for the press conference and preview.

The exhibition poster © Crown Copyright

There was much press interest in the exhibition. The poster reproduced here shows an image of a GAC engraving by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck London and Westminster 4: Fleet Ditch to Basinghsaw. This was slightly daunting on a personal level as I have only just started to work at the GAC and the journalists were keen to find out more about the paintings themselves and the way the Collection works overall. Never mind the language barrier! However, with the help of an interpreter, I was able to provide a bit more context to the GAC’s purpose and the Collection. The exhibition is now open to the public and some early feedback suggests that it is providing a taster of what British art has to offer.

Preview evening © Crown Copyright