Have you ever visited a museum gallery or art exhibition and wondered how it all came together? Do you walk around thinking about object mounting, text styles and the location of caption panels? Are you looking out for the environmental monitors, spotting colour themes and considering how an object that big got into that space? If it’s a no, good job, you probably aren’t a museum professional and will enjoy the exhibition far more as a result!

These are some of the many factors and considerations that go in to creating an exhibition and larger galleries will take years to come into fruition. Installations are the end product, the melting pot of all this hard work. They are time pressured activities where a vast variety of elements from internal and external teams come together, so any preparation that can happen beforehand to ensure things go smoothly is essential.

Over the past year, IWM Conservators have worked with the Transforming IWM London (TIWML) team to complete ‘mock-ups’ of the showcases going into the new Second World War and Holocaust galleries – this blog post gives a summary of the work involved.

3D mock-ups

In the depths of winter 2019, IWM was bustling with TIWML activity. The 3D mock-ups had begun involving team members from conservation, curation, content, project delivery as well as external designers and mount and mannequin makers. The 3D mock-ups brought together all the different elements of a museum showcase in replication of installation.

Initiating the mock-up, the showcases were measured out in tape to their exact size. Plinths and tables were replicated to scale using wood and moved into position. One of the major factors to check during the mock-up was that the objects could physically fit in to the cases. To do this the locations of their mounts were decided on, marked up and drilled in to place. Text and graphic panels were yet to be created so these were printed out on A4 paper to scale, then placed in case.

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Senior Conservator, Jenna Taylor, places a mount in position (Copyright IWM)
Figure 1. Senior Conservator, Jenna Taylor, places a mount in position (Copyright IWM)

Once all these factors were complete and the area cleaned the conservation team placed the objects on to the mounts. It was at this stage that we reviewed if any mounts needed to be altered and checked if any further conservation treatments needed to be carried out or internal supports made.

In case any changes need to be made, the mounts were not finalised when the mock-ups occurred – they still needed to be spray painted and soft padding added. Part of our role as conservators was to ensure that temporary barrier layers were used to protect the objects from the metal mount. For this we used acid-free tissue paper, Plastazote and Melinex.

Having our contractors on hand made the process easy if mounts did need altering. As a team we worked closely with our external mount makers, Tony Jones and Richard Rodgers Conservation Ltd. Our textile conservator, Julie McBain, worked alongside the curators and mannequin contractors, H&H Sculptors, to review the desired poses and to make sure they wouldn’t be putting any stress on the textiles. Lucy Cokes, our paper conservator, assessed the books cradles and 2D mount angles. Jenna Taylor, Isabelle Hetherington and Rachel Howie supervised and mounted the 3D objects. When only one of us was on hand we oversaw everything. The 3D mock-ups were a hub of activity and so our main role as conservators was to ensure that the area was kept clean and tidy and objects weren’t put at any risk. As you can expect, a day of mock-ups was mentally and physically tiring!

The mock-ups also came hand in hand with the crucial task of recording of information on to the IWM’s database. This is the museum equivalent of a holy scripture and all object-based information held here feeds in to the installation of the galleries.

By the end of the day all our criteria had been checked and ticked off. We knew that everything would fit in the case! The days were long and tiring but very rewarding knowing that the effort will pay off when it comes to installing the objects in 2021.

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Figure 2 shows a finished mock-up after the objects have been removed and safely packed away in their boxes by the Project Delivery Team. The content has been censored to keep it a secret until the galleries are opened! (Copyright IWM).
Figure 2. A finished mock-up after the objects have been removed and safely packed away in their boxes by the Project Delivery Team. The content has been censored to keep it a secret until the galleries are opened! (Copyright IWM).

It was now March, we’d mocked up around 36 showcases, all was going to plan…

And then Covid-19 hit.

Digital mock-ups

With the world in full or partial lockdown with no end in sight and our London team unable to travel up to Duxford we were faced with the worrying prospect that two thirds of our showcases wouldn’t get mocked up prior to install.

This is where we called in Steven Wyeth from Fraser Randall. With Steve’s previous experience designing showcase layouts combined with a lot of measuring from the conservation team, we were able to complete the showcase mock-ups in 3D digital format.

The success of the digital mock-ups relied on the accuracy of our measuring. The conservation team measured every object on their mounts, taking an image of each and annotating with dimensions and display angles. Each showcase went through a number of reviews over video-conference before being signed-off in a final session by all associated teams.

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Figure 3 shows a small Japanese keepsake doll sits upon its mount. Dimensions have been annotated ready for the showcases digital mock-up.
Figure 3. A small Japanese keepsake doll sits upon its mount. Dimensions have been annotated ready for the showcases digital mock-up.

The mock-ups were a real group effort with information being pulled together from many different teams, who worked hard and tirelessly to make them a success. The benefit will be huge and clearly worthwhile when it comes to installing the galleries in 2021.

When you next look around an exhibition, take a little moment to think about the hours of preparation involved and all the museum folk who have turned grey along the way!

By Jenna Taylor