The ‘Glamorous’ job of a Museum courier

April 13, 2011

The Museum often loans artifacts from its collections to other museums for exhibit.  Under certain circumstances, the artifacts will be accompanied by a courier, a museum staff member who oversees the transport, unpacking or repacking, condition reporting, and installation or deinstallation of the artifact(s).  One of those circumstances is if the artifacts are traveling by air; in the continental US and Canada, transport is most often by truck.  Beyond that they go by air, either in an air freighter or –more commonly- a combi-jet, a passenger jet that also carries cargo.  The reason air travel requires a courier will be obvious to anyone who’s ever missed a connection, had a flight cancelled or lost a bag in transit.  The courier is the artifacts’ voice, speaking up for them whenever anything goes awry.

A typical customs warehouse of the type couriers spend many uncomfortable hours standing and waiting in.

Whenever anyone hears I’m going on a courier trip, especially to Europe or other exotic locales, the response is usually something along the lines of “you’re so lucky”, “can I come in your suitcase?”, and other envious utterances.  Unless they’ve been a courier, in which case they’re more likely to ask “how bad is it?”  Courier trips range from bearable, occasionally even enjoyable, to truly nightmarish and almost always require serious stamina.  Let me illustrate this with my current trip (I’ve started writing this in the C4 departure lounge of Frankfurt airport).

I was accompanying six Egyptian artifacts being loaned to the Roemer und Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany for their centenary exhibit on the excavations at Giza.  One of the artifacts, a lintel, weighed over 300 lbs, requiring rigging which is why I was going, since I’ve had a lot of experience overseeing rigging.  Making arrangement for such an international loan starts months (preferably at least 18 months) in advance and involves a large cast of characters: curators at both Museums, collections management staff, registrars at both museums, customs brokers in the US and Germany, packing and transport companies, to name a few.  Despite having started arrangements in good time, three weeks before the exhibit was to open I still wasn’t really sure when I was leaving.  I got my complete and final itinerary two days before I left after 10 days of fairly frantic emailing between our customs broker and the German agents.

My duties started the day before departure, on Wednesday, April 6, when I accompanied the packed crates (two of them) to a TSA screening facility.  All cargo going on a passenger jet must be screened before departure; pre-screening at a licensed facility avoids having the crates opened in the uncontrolled conditions of a cargo warehouse.  Once the screeners have opened the crates checked the artifacts and all the packing materials for forbidden materials, they seal them with tamper-proof straps and lock them away in a special facility until pick-up.  I had to witness all this, just as I’d had to familiarize myself with the artifacts; their condition; their mounts, if any; special handling requirements; and their packing before the objects left the Museum.

Thursday, April 7, 10:30 am. I arrive back at the screening facility with my bags. Even though the flight wouldn’t leave until 4:20 pm, cargo close-out was at 12 pm and we had to get everything to the airport before then.  The sealed crates were placed on a truck, which was itself sealed by TSA certified agents, I climbed into the cab with the drivers and it was off to the airport.  There we were met by our broker and taken to the cargo warehouse where the crates would be palletized for loading on to the aircraft.

11:30 am. This is where things start going – not wrong exactly – but a little hinky.  One of the TSA screening forms had a wrong name in one line and that meant that the seal on the truck couldn’t be broken until it had gotten straightened out.  I waited as patiently as possible (at least there was a chair) for 45 minutes while Mike Andrel, our customs broker and a truly remarkable man, negotiated the red tape and freed our crates.

12:30 pm Then there was another hour standing around in the warehouse, waiting for the crates to be palletized.  All these warehouses look the same: huge, bare (nowhere to sit), non-climate controlled, and full of speeding forklifts, making it necessary to be on guard at all times.  An aircraft pallet is actually a giant cookie sheet.  A plastic sheet about 10 times the area of the pallet is opened on it, the crates are placed on this and strapped into place.  The plastic is then wrapped around the crates and held in place with a liberal application of shrink wrap (this is in case the crates end up sitting on the tarmac in the rain for hours.  It happens).  Finally a cargo net is applied over the whole mass.  I’m given the pallet number and I turn responsibility over temporarily to a bonded security agent, who sits with the pallet until it’s taken to be loaded on the plane.  His security clearance enables him to accompany the pallet out onto the tarmac and he watches until it’s loaded into the plane, when he calls me to tell me the pallet is on board and its location in the cargo hold.  He’ll then stay on the tarmac until the plane pushes off from the gate.  I have nothing but admiration for these guys who do a really boring but necessary job in horrible conditions.

The crates (white) in their protective cocoon of plastic, getting their final layer of cargo netting to complete the palletization.

2:30 pm – Mike takes me and the courier from another local museum whose crates are on the same pallet to check in.  Theoretically we could now enjoy the comfort of the US Air lounge but we barely have time to wolf down a hasty lunch before it’s time to go to the departure lounge to watch our crates be loaded on the plane.

5:30 pm – the plane, with both our crates and us on board, finally takes off, after passenger boarding was delayed for an hour due to mechanical problems.  All I could think was, ‘oh no, they’re going to cancel the flight and we’ll have to do this all again tomorrow’ but finally we were in the air for the most worry-free part of the process.  When couriers travel on the same plane as their crates, the standard is that they go Business Class.  Not only is there a better chance that they’ll be functional when they arrive, but being up front gives you access should any problems arise.  Once, when I was accompanying an object back from Venice, we’d just started taxi-ing when takeoff was aborted because of smoke filling the cabin.  The plane was taken to a remote part of the tarmac and we were told all the cargo would have to be unloaded.  I was frantic to notify the Italian customs brokers who’d been handling the arrangements to make sure that the crate would be properly handled and guarded but the on-board phones don’t work on the ground and in those long-ago days (2002), international cell phones were pretty rare.  Because I was up front I was able to get the flight attendants’ attention, borrow the pilot’s cell phone and call the customs agents all before anyone arrived to touch the cargo.  The smoke turned out to be a minor problem and the flight left without being unloaded but my access to the flight crew was critical when it counted.

7:30 am (local time; 1:30 am EDT) – our flight lands at Frankfurt airport, where we are met by the German customs broker, who leads us off on a long walk to his car and a long drive to his office, where we wait to hear that the pallet has been unloaded.  His security agent was waiting planeside until the crates were unloaded and accompanied them to the customs warehouse.  Once they arrive there and the paperwork has been prepared, we are driven to the warehouse to watch the unloading of the pallet.

11 am (5 am EDT) Our crates are loaded into a waiting truck, strapped in snugly and we pile into a car driven by another employee of the art handling firm, who drives behind the truck all the way to Hildesheim, where the borrowing museum is.

24 hours later, the crates arrive at the borrowing museum.

4:30 pm (10:30 am EDT) Almost exactly 24 hours after we left the screening center in Philadelphia, we arrive at the Roemer und Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim where the crates are unloaded and put into secure storage.  After a few formalities, we arrive at the guesthouse where we’ll be staying by 6 pm – tired, cranky, jet-lagged, and culture-shocked.

Tomorrow would be another day….