Whistlejacket (circa 1762), the life-size portrait of a racehorse by George Stubbs, is currently on loan from the National Gallery in London to the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
Photo: Ivo Hoekstra, Mauritshuis

Necessity has been the mother of invention during the Covid-19 pandemic. Museum registrars have developed an innovative way for international loan exhibitions, many of which have been postponed by the global lockdown, to continue this fall. To overcome travel restrictions and sudden changes in quarantine rules, works of art that would normally be chaperoned in transit by a specialist will instead be monitored by “virtual couriers”.

Paintings set to travel soon without a physical courier include those of Artemisia Gentileschi David and Bathsheba (around 1636-37). The Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio has agreed to loan the work to the National Gallery in London for its long-awaited exhibition of the female Baroque artist. Originally scheduled for April, Mugwort is now scheduled to open on October 3.

The Columbus Museum will follow the painting’s journey from a distance using “vast real-time shared digital communication” and electronic devices, among other safeguards, a spokesperson said. “It helps that we have a long-standing collegial relationship with the National Gallery and a long history of lending between our institutions. “

London’s Royal Academy of Arts switched to virtual mail during extension Picasso and paper exhibition closed on August 2. The loans, many of which came from the Picasso-Paris Museum, arrived in January accompanied by human couriers. But in the Zoom era, only one virtual courier was able to oversee the de-installation of the exhibit and check loan status through the popular video conferencing app, a spokesperson said.

The UK Registrars Group recently updated its advice on the practicalities and pitfalls of virtual messaging. The chairman of the group, David Packer, who is the registrar of the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge, says:. ”

The guidelines note that a good wifi connection is crucial, as is a smartphone charger. No one wants their signal or battery to go out at a critical time during a long video call when a valuables board is in transit or packed on their way home.

Registrars didn’t have to start from scratch when Covid-19 disrupted preparations for international exhibitions. Packer says the Icelandic volcano eruption of 2010 prompted museum professionals and shipping companies to find new methods of transporting art safely despite widespread travel disruption. “We had artwork and couriers everywhere,” he recalls.

The rise of virtual mail is expected to help reduce the environmental impact of large loaner shows and also save museums the cost of flights, accommodation and the travel expenses of a human chaperone. But some institutions may still require a staff member to accompany the art in certain situations.

The National Gallery is uncertain whether it entrusts its own loans to human or virtual supervision. He declined to say if a member of staff would be visiting the Mauritshuis in The Hague this month to monitor the return trip of George Stubbs’ life-size portrait of racehorse. Whistle (around 1762). “To do so would compromise security,” said a spokesperson.

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