Traveling Museum Exhibits – Planning, Preparation, And Collections Care

by | Mar 1, 2024 | Blog, Traveling exhibits

What does it take to plan and execute successful traveling museum exhibits? From making sure an object requested fits the story the exhibit is trying to tell, to ensuring it arrives safely at its destination with all its paperwork in order, traveling collections are also impressive displays of team collaboration. Directors, curators, registrars, conservators, mountmakers, art handlers and preparators, insurance officers, security personnel, and front-of-house staff have to work together to make sure it all works smoothly so that new audiences may access objects they might never have seen otherwise. So what does it take?

Planning traveling museum exhibits

When planning traveling museum exhibits, it is essential to consider the logistics of transportation and the conditions that the exhibits will be subjected to during their journey. Since this is only one of the many aspects of collections management, a great place for information related to traveling exhibits is the general collections management policy document.

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) recommends that museums have a comprehensive collections management policy in place to guide the stewardship of its collections. Within this policy, there should already be an outline of the necessary steps for preparing exhibits for travel, including documentation, records management, and inventory.

Preparing exhibits for transport

The preparation of exhibits for travel involves ensuring that they are packaged correctly to withstand the conditions they will encounter. This includes considering factors such as temperature, humidity, and potential damage from pests, accidents or natural disasters.

Fun note: Did you know there is a free PDF of Art in Transit: Handbook for Packing and Transporting Paintings published by the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art in 1997 that you can download?

Having a system in place to monitor environmental conditions that allows you to take proactive measures to mitigate the effects of changing conditions on the collections can be a key component of loan agreements and insurance requirements before art goes anywhere.

It is common for lenders to require environmental reports of areas that will be receiving the loaned objects, so having solid environmental monitoring software such as Conserv Cloud which can provide you with the necessary information in an easy report form that you can share with different interested parties can save you a lot of time and logistical headaches.

Collections care during travel

Apart from figuring out the legal documentation of taking collections from one place to another, sometimes across oceans and into countries that speak other languages, the actual moving part can be one of the most stressful stages of a loan.

Where in-person couriers are used, collections care staff must be careful to oversee that the pallets are going to the right places in the right equipment, and at the right time. One of the safest ways to ensure that collections care policies and procedures are being followed by staff with extensive experience and training is to hire an experienced fine arts transport company to sort out most of this headache for you. If you have never hired one before, here is a good article with pointers on what you should be looking for in an art transportation service.

Arrival and unpacking

Upon arrival at the destination, the exhibits should be allowed to sit within their packaging for at least a day so they can acclimate to the new environment. This is especially important if your collections are going into conditions that are extremely different from what they are used to or even from the conditions when they were packed.

It is not uncommon for acclimatization periods to be included in loan agreement documentation, so make sure you check for those before you start opening boxes. Once enough time has been given to allow the closed packages to acclimatize, objects will need to be unpacked and inspected for any signs of damage against the condition survey reports that will have been done when the objects were first packed.

Depending on the arrangements of each particular loan, the receiving institution will now have to create or adjust the mounts they made to display the objects, or they will have to unpack the mounting accessories that the lender will have sent along with the objects.

Once the exhibit is over, everything will have to be done all over again but in the opposite direction as the objects return to their original institution.


Both lending and borrowing institutions will face several challenges when preparing traveling exhibits:

  1. Logistics and Transportation: Planning transportation of valuable items requires careful consideration of the safest and most efficient methods. If a fine arts transport service is not hired, it will be necessary to select appropriate shipping methods and packaging materials that can withstand the journey without compromising the integrity of the exhibits. See our blog post on Choosing Packing Materials Before Art Transport for more information on packing methods and materials.
  2. Climate control or active monitoring: Maintaining the “appropriate” climate for the exhibits during transport is another challenge. While the push for sustainability practices today means these environmental standards may be becoming more flexible, current loan agreements can still be very specific about acceptable temperature, relative humidity, and illuminance levels. A borrowing institution must be capable of at least proving it is monitoring the space actively and that it will be able to respond quickly to any dangerous changes that could put objects at risk.
  3. Security: Protecting the exhibits from theft or damage during transit and exhibition outside of the owning institution is a critical concern. This will include the use of secure packaging, protocols during transit, and tracking systems. It may also relate to any security put in place during exhibition and can be especially challenging when trying to design exhibits that focus on community accessibility and engagement.
  4. Sustainability: With growing emphasis on environmental sustainability, museums today need to consider the environmental impact of their traveling exhibits. This includes choosing materials and traveling methods that minimize the carbon footprint and reduce waste as well as considering new alternatives such as virtual couriering practices. The Smithsonian Magazine discusses the future of traveling museum exhibits and the importance of sustainability in the context of reducing waste and promoting environmental responsibility.
  5. Budget and Resource Management: Planning and executing traveling exhibits can be expensive. Institutions need to balance the cost of preparing and transporting the exhibits with the potential return on investment from increased public engagement, educational opportunities, and even relationship building with fellow collecting institutions or community centers.
  6. Technical Challenges: For exhibits that include interactive elements or media, ensuring that the technology functions correctly can be a complex task. This includes troubleshooting any issues that may arise with the devices or systems used in the exhibits. While we have not focused on this in this article, there are some traveling exhibitions which are hired or rented by museums as special temporary exhibits. It is very common for these kinds of exhibits to include interactive components which can run into issues related to compatibility, power supply, data storage or transfer, user interface design, as well as maintenance and repair.
  7. Audience Engagement: Not only do collections management professionals think about the logistics of the traveling exhibit, but they may also be involved in collaborations with other departments to create promotional materials or educational content that can be used to attract visitors to the exhibits. It would be a shame to go through all this work for only a few unengaged visitors.
  8. Legal and Regulatory Compliance: Museums must ensure that they comply with all relevant laws and regulations related to the transport and display of cultural artifacts. This can include obtaining necessary permits and licenses, as well as adhering to international conventions for the protection of cultural heritage. In some cases, it also involves trying to get the necessary paperwork to ensure certain objects will not be seized by a sovereign government in a different country during a tour. You may thank your registrars for this!

Post-exhibit evaluation

After the exhibit has concluded, it is important to evaluate the condition of the exhibits to assess any damage that may have occurred during the travel and display phases. This evaluation should be documented, and any necessary conservation work may be carried out to ensure the long-term preservation of the exhibits. Here is a good example from the Canadian Conservation Institute Notes on condition reporting for paintings.

Your post exhibit evaluation may include:

  • Condition assessments: A thorough assessment of the condition of each object is necessary to identify any signs of damage or degradation that may have occurred during display. This assessment can help to determine the extent of any necessary conservation treatment. It will also be compared to the assessment that was done before the loan to identify any damage or changes.
  • Conservation and restoration work: Although unlikely, if any damage is identified, restoration work may be necessary. This could involve cleaning, repairing physical damage, or replacing any materials that have deteriorated or been lost. Your loan agreement should indicate who is both in charge of and financially responsible for these interventions. No conservation work should be carried out without the knowledge of the other institution.
  • Preventive conservation decisions: Based on the findings of the condition assessment, proactive preventive conservation measures may be implemented to prevent future damage. Check out our blog post on Active Environmental Monitoring to start thinking about mitigating risk based on information retrieved through environmental monitoring.
  • Post-mortem: You may find there is a lot of value in reviewing what went well and what didn’t go so well during your traveling museum exhibit experience. Do you wish you’d had a bit more time for a particular task? Do you have a new contact that you can reach out to in the future for a specific aspect of the logistics of traveling collections? Did you find out something you didn’t know about airline or airport policies for objects going in the hold? It will be useful to document any lessons learned and new information gleaned into a written report. Staff may move on and take this knowledge with them, so it can be well worth everyone’s time to document the little golden nuggets of information that will make your next traveling exhibition much better and less stressful.


Traveling museum exhibits offer a valuable opportunity to engage new audiences and promote the collections of libraries, archives, and museums beyond their day-to-day reach. However, it is crucial to plan, prepare, and monitor these exhibits to ensure not only the safety and preservation of the collections, but also the possibility of exchanges continuing over time.

Good practices, standard guidelines, and experienced collections care professionals that spend a bit of time documenting new lessons learned after every new exhibit comes back successfully will be key to maintaining and building strong inter-institutional ties for the benefit of our audiences.

If you have any questions about environmental monitoring, integrated pest management, or just want to talk about preventative conservation, please reach out to us! Don’t forget to check out our blog or join our community of collections care professionals where you can discuss hot topics, connect with your peers or even take a course to get familiar with the Conserv platform.

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