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From Denmark to Provo: Transporting century-old art

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 9 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Panels are removed from an altar painting at Vor Frue Kirke in Aalborg, Denmark. (Provided by Dawn Pheysey) Panels are removed from an altar painting at Vor Frue Kirke in Aalborg, Denmark. (Provided by Dawn Pheysey)

Editor's note: This article is part of a series for the upcoming BYU Museum of Art exhibit, "The Religious Art of Carl Bloch, Heinrich Hofmann and Frans Schwartz," which runs from Nov. 15 to May 10, 2014. For more information, visit sacredgifts.byu.edu.

How do you transport a painting more than a century old from a castle in Denmark? The answer, said Dawn Pheysey, Brigham Young University Museum of Art's head curator, is very, very carefully.

The paintings in the BYU Museum of Art's upcoming free exhibit, "Sacred Gifts: The Religious Art of Carl Bloch, Heinrich Hofmann and Frans Schwartz," which opens Nov. 15, are being transported from nine different locations in Germany, Sweden, Denmark and New York City.

But transporting some of the most iconic paintings for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is no easy feat.

"The Resurrection" altar painting is removed from Sankt Jakobs Kirke in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Provided by Dawn Pheysey)

After permission was given to remove the paintings — some for the first time ever since their installation — the lengthy process of removal and exportation began.

Transportation

Altar paintings are taken from the altar in their respective churches and placed facedown on a clean, white archival material on the floor. The altar paintings — which for this exhibit range in size from 94 inches by 67.5 inches to 148 inches by 117 inches — then are archivally wrapped by conservators.

"Conservators are the ones who are specially trained to handle works of art, so they wear gloves and uniforms which are clean," Pheysey said.

It isn't like they "come and move it in dirty sweats," Pheysey said.

"The Resurrection" altar painting is removed from Sankt Jakobs Kirke in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Provided by Dawn Pheysey)

Following the wrapping, the paintings are placed in a special crate complete with foam and packing materials, which prevent the paintings from touching the crate itself.

"They're suspended in the crate so that any amount of jostling during travel will be absorbed by that material," she said.

All paintings must be transported in the upright position. Some, because of their size, require their own plane to make the trip to Utah.

"The reason for that is because if a painting is laid down, the vibration of the plane against the stretcher bars in the back of the painting may cause damage to it," Pheysey said.

Carl Bloch's altar painting titled "The Resurrection" is the largest of all the altar paintings for the "Sacred Gifts" collection, measuring 148 inches by 117 inches. Its large size prevents the painting from fitting upright in a plane.

"The Resurrection" altar painting is removed from Sankt Jakobs Kirke in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Provided by Dawn Pheysey)

The solution, Pheysey said, was to roll the painting — very carefully.

"The Resurrection" was wrapped in archival material and then carefully placed into a tube. It was then wrapped again and placed into a larger tube to prevent the painting from cracking.

Pheysey said that once the art arrives safely, she can breathe easy, but the transportation makes her nervous.

Acclimation

After the transportation, the acclimation process begins — and it's not a quick process.

"When they take them out of the crates, (the couriers) have to acclimate them because (the paintings) are coming from a very humid climate to a very dry climate," Pheysey said. "We can only increase the humidity in the museum to a certain level and it isn't the same level that (the paintings) are used to being in Denmark. That could damage the painting."

Karen Thomas of Thomas Conservation Lab in New York City works on Hofmann's Karen Thomas of Thomas Conservation Lab in New York City works on Hofmann's "Jesus in the Temple." (Provided by Dawn Pheysey)

After arriving in Provo, the paintings are taken to the registration area on the bottom floor of the museum and simply left there.

"They don't open the crate; they just let them acclimate," Pheysey said.

The next day, couriers who accompany the paintings unscrew the crate and let it sit overnight again. Depending on how quickly the couriers have to return to their home country, the crate holding the painting will be unscrewed a little at a time over several days.

"It depends on the painting, too," Pheysey said. "Canvas paintings don't have to be drawn out over a two-week period. However, if it were a painting on a wood panel, it would take about two weeks to acclimate it a little at a time."

Couriers will then open the crate fully and remove the archival material covering the work of art. Even then, the painting will remain in the crate overnight to continue the acclimation process.

Finally, the painting is taken to the gallery and installed.

Installation

When the painting is installed, either onto the wall or into the framework built exclusively for the exhibit, the couriers perform a condition report.

"They go over every square inch of that painting and they mark down … any damage they notice, like flaking paint or if there is a dent," Pheysey said.

This process is done before the paintings are removed from their original location, when the painting arrives at the museum, at the end of the exhibition and when it returns to its home.

Pheysey said this report is done routinely so that if damage does occur, conservators can determine when and where the damage was likely to have happened.

"That's how they determine who is going to pay for it," she said.

The paintings for BYU's exhibit are insured through the LDS Church.

The cost for an undertaking such as this is another matter entirely, BYU Museum of Art director Mark Magleby said.

"It wouldn't be unusual for a large altar piece in terms of its conservation and masterpiece shipping to cost an amount approaching $100,000," Magleby said.

"Sacred Gifts" will feature six altar paintings as well as 17 other paintings from various other locations.

The museum is accepting donations for the exhibit online and during the event.

"Sacred Gifts: The Religious Art of Carl Bloch, Heinrich Hofmann and Frans Schwartz" will run from Nov. 15 until May 2014. Tickets for the event are free but must be obtained online prior to attendance.

Emmilie Buchanan-Whitlock is an intern for the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Contact her by email: ebuchanan@deseretnews.com or on Twitter: emmiliewhitlock

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