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Le Havre to Launceston: Bringing Baudin to the Queen Victoria Art Gallery

My name is Andrew Johnson and my role at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery is Exhibitions Coordinator for the Gallery of First Tasmanians. This will be a permanent exhibition opening in July this year, focusing on the Tasmanian Aboriginals, reflecting on their culture over 40,000 years.

For The Art of Science – Baudin’s Voyagers 1800-1804 I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take a lead role in coordinating the exhibition for the Launceston leg of the national tour. I enjoyed being part of a large team working together to bring this significant exhibition out to Australia from France. It has been very satisfying to be involved in such an important touring exhibition and to work with a number of Museums and Art Galleries around Australia and the large group of professionals from these institutions. It has been a pleasure to see so many components come together to ensure a successful international exhibition tour.

This talk is to give you an insight into the processes of bringing out a major touring exhibition and what is involved.

The tour, to include six institutions around Australia, was officially announced back in May 2015. The Maritime Museum of South Australia opened the tour on 30 June 2016. Tasmania is the second destination of the tour, starting here at the Queen Victoria Art Gallery. We host the exhibition for three months and then send it down to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, which will also have the exhibition on display for three months. The Exhibition will then move to the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney and then the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. The Exhibition finishes the tour at the Western Australian Museum, opening in September 2018.

Except for the Tasmanian venues, each venue will have the exhibition on display for six months. The three-month period for QVMAG and TMAG is because nearly half the works are shared between the two institutions. This is due to the significant number of works depicting aborigines in Tasmania, as you can see in the “Encounters” area. It is important these works are on display at both venues in Tasmania.

Each venue in the tour will have similar designs and layouts based around the same six themes; however, they will all be quite different with a unique selection of works.

All the works by Lesueur and Petit come from collections at the Muséum d’histoire naturalle du Havre. Other international loans included in the tour have been negotiated with the Musée National de la Marine, the Musée de l’Armée and the Archives nationales from France.

Objects from these institutions include:

  • A copper printing plate of the first complete map of Australia, from 1811.
  • The ship model of the Géographe, one of the two ships on Baudin’s voyage. This is on loan from the Maritime Museum of Le Havre. It is not particularly old; however; it was an ambitious object to transport across the world!

The exhibition also includes loans of works and objects from Australian collections. Institutions include the Mornington Art Gallery, the South Australian Maritime Museum, and the State Libraries of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia.

Objects from these collections include:

  • Several beautiful publications. In particular, I like the children’s encyclopaedia with illustrations taken directly from the voyage’s atlas, on loan from the State Library of South Australia.
  • I am fascinated by the Reeves and Inwood paint box dated around 1790 on loan from South Australian Maritime Museum. I feel that this object gives us a little insight into the life of the two artists Lesueur and Petit and how they would have worked.

I am also very pleased and proud to point out that the QVMAG has been able to include in this exhibition collection items that relate directly to some of the specifically Tasmanian works. These include the collection of Natural Science objects in the case situated in the ‘Observers of Nature’ area. Included in the case is the Green or Tasmanian Rosella which has been illustrated so beautifully by Lesueur. In stark contrast is the Elephant fish, which is not particularly beautiful.

As I mentioned, the tour was announced in May 2015, so we have had 20 months to organise and prepare for the exhibition before displaying it in Launceston. These months have gone by very quickly. Organising this tour was a massive collaboration with the other institutions I have mentioned. The National Museum of Australia and South Australia Maritime Museum have taken lead roles in certain areas, such as logistics. This was essential with the huge demands on resources and experience for an international tour such as this.

Bringing back to Australia over 400 original works on paper, all over 200 years old, plus a significant number of supporting objects from other institutions in France including a model of a tall ship, was always going to be a major undertaking. The French were excited but nervous as were the Australians. These works have never been on display outside of France.

I am pleased to say that everyone is happy and relaxed now.

The works by Lesueur and Petit have been divided into 3 shipments to be flown out separately for the tour. The first shipment contained the South Australian and Tasmanian works, and subsequent shipments will follow for the remaining four venues. This plan has allowed for easier handling and more manageable insurance processes.

The objects from France were transported by air with Singapore Airlines and managed by a specialist art handling company. Associated with the transport of this delicate freight are a number of processes required by the borrower and the lender. Obviously, insurance is required for all international and national loans. The value of the French works and objects was significant. This insurance premium was covered for the duration of the tour by a grant from the Australian Government International Exhibition Insurance Program (AGIEI). Each venue had to cover the insurance premiums for the national loans.

A condition of the loan agreement was for a courier to travel with each shipment of the works to oversee the unloading, unpacking and condition reporting. A courier is present for the de-install and following install in each new venue.

Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan (PCOL) is an Australian Government scheme. Established in 2013 the scheme was created to encourage international lenders to lend works for temporary public exhibition in Australia. The scheme is designed to limit the risk for the lender of losing ownership or possession of works on loan.

This scheme was included as part of the loan agreement for this tour. There are strict guidelines for institutions associated with the scheme. The National Museum of Australia is registered under the scheme and coordinated the requirements of the other institutions involved. For QVMAG this required listing all works to be displayed on our website and maintaining a link to the NMA website, which shows their list of works being displayed on the entire tour.

It was important with the works depicting Aborigines and works depicting cultural activities that the Aboriginal communities were a part of the consultation process and given the opportunity to view the proposed works for display at all institutions. Both QVMAG and TMAG managed this process through our associated existing Aboriginal reference groups.

Costs of producing the exhibition were covered by the touring institutions.

A grant from National Collecting Institutions Touring and Outreach Program (NCITO) covered the freight costs of the exhibition tour and courier airfares and transport. This is a Federal program which supports bringing cultural material from Australia and overseas to Australians and Australian works touring overseas.

International Art Services (IAS) was the chosen carrier to move the exhibition components around Australia. This included the display furniture, graphics and objects. This are a specialist art handling company using purpose-built trucks maintaining controlled environments for the contents.

An exhibition design brief was created and sent out to exhibition design companies to tender. ‘Mulloway’, a design firm based in South Australia, was the successful winner of the tender. It designed all the display furniture, layouts and graphic elements for the six venues. This included a style guide for colours, fonts and layouts. Mulloway also coordinated the display furniture build.

It was decided that there were six themes into which the works would be divided:

  1. Napoleon’s France
  2. The voyage
  3. The view from the deck
  4. The paintbox
  5. Observers of nature/Collecting the world
  6. Encounters

In the six venues, 50-80 works would be displayed. The QVMAG has done well, displaying 85!

Colours chosen for the exhibition were inspired by the artists’ paints: ‘Bladder Green’ in the Voyage, ‘Cassell Earth’ for View from the deck, ‘Prussian Blue’ for Observers of Nature and ‘Fine Carmine’ for Encounters.

It was important that careful consideration was given to the display furniture for an exhibition touring around Australia to six venues over more than two years. All the components had to be moved easily, packed well into a truck and be durable and robust enough to last the tour. There are no crew who tour with the exhibition. All venues are required to provide install crew who work from a tour manual. The QVMAG is very lucky to have a professional team of installers, conservators and AV technicians who, installed the exhibition in this gallery. They all proved their dedication working through the Christmas and New Year period to ensure an opening on 7 January. I must add that the team included our Director Richard Mulvaney whom I believe was more than useful.

The object labels are an important part of any exhibition. The team at MONA would disagree with this statement; however for this particular exhibition it is very important. Many of the labels associated with objects for the tour were written by the South Australian Maritime Museum. All the object labels and extended text for the QVMAG leg of the tour were written by curators Jon Addison in the History Section and David Maynard in the Natural Sciences Section. The labels and text are worth reading as they contain interesting detail about the works.

The other area of significant input for a touring exhibition like this is Conservation. The QVMAG has a conservator of Paper and a Conservator of Objects. Both were involved in hosting this exhibition at the Art Gallery. For Amy Bartlett, our Conservator of works on Paper, it was an enormous task to take 85 original works on 200-year-old paper or velum, carefully re- mount them and frame them. I am sure you will all agree this has been done successfully and that the works all look stunning.

Other unseen tasks of the conservator are the condition reporting and assessing of all objects and works to ensure they have travelled safely and are in condition fit for display. This task was assisted by the French courier from the National Archives in Paris. Having a courier escort the collection is a common practice for international loans.

During the unpacking of the travel crates I took a number of photographs to show how well packed the objects are. The work that goes into the construction of these crates is impressive. In particular the crate for the tall ship model of the Géographe was a thing of beauty, with the ship model tucked in so carefully.

An important condition of the loan agreement for the Queen Victoria Art Gallery and all the touring venues was to provide a gallery that could maintain ‘A’ class climate conditions. This requires our touring gallery to maintain a temperature of 20 degrees +/- 2 degrees Celsius and a relative humidity of 50% +/- 5%.

To complement the exhibition, a catalogue was produced. This in itself was quite an achievement. It was necessary to coordinate permissions, from a number of the institutions on the tour, for reproductions of images, design and production and input of text and essays. It is a beautiful publication.

I believe the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston is very fortunate to host such a significant exhibition for Australia, and particularly Tasmania. The quality of the works painted in such trying conditions so long ago is staggering. I do hope you enjoy the exhibition – and it is free!

I would like to thank Lindl Lawton, Senior Curator from SAMM, and Sara Kelly, Head Registrar from NMA. Both of them were an enormous help to QVMAG in bringing this exhibition to Launceston and I am sure they will continue to play key roles during the rest of the tour.


Andrew Johnson

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