How to Move a Collection: Packing the Museum

The collections department at the Stanley has returned to packing the artwork at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, where the majority of the collection is stored. We have multiple methods for packing the collection depending on what type of object we are working with. These methods help us standardize our workflow and determine which objects need further care and consideration. Each object requires some examination as we pack it, but the packing methods described below are for general objects that don’t require an individualized approach because of the condition or physical characteristics. 

The most common sculptures in the collection are African figures and masks. Typically made of wood, their materials can also include leather, feathers, textiles, raffia, beads, and paint. Most often the biggest concern with packing these sculptures is ensuring that the surface is not damaged. First, we wrap each object in tissue paper; next, we wrap and seal it in plastic to create a vapor barrier. This prevents changes in humidity, which can cause damage. We then wrap each object in a few layers of bubble wrap and place it in a box. Smaller pieces can be wrapped together in one box, as they don't have enough mass to damage each other.


When packing ceramic objects, the first thing we need to consider is its specific vulnerabilities. Some are very thin and fragile overall, whereas others may have thin protruding parts that need to be protected. Fragile objects need to be packed with light, flexible packing materials such as tissue paper and bubble wrap. This is because we need to ensure that if the box is slightly crushed that force won't be transferred to the object. Likewise, a heavier object can transfer force to its own, more fragile parts. Imagine the weight of a heavy teapot pressing against its own spout. In this case we build up padding? around the spout, which will help disperse its force to a larger, more stable part of the object. Heavy ceramics require heavier, denser packing materials, such as archival foam. This prevents the object from compressing the packing material and migrating to the perimeter of the box, where it could be damaged during transport.


Paintings are primarily packed in what are called shadow boxes. A shadow box is a shallow cardboard box that fits precisely around a painting, with the face side open; this protects the painting’s delicate surface. We then stretch and tape polyethylene plastic sheeting over the box to suspend the plastic a couple inches above the face of the painting. The stretched plastic bends the cardboard of the box slightly, which keeps the painting secure inside. Once the boxed paintings are then labeled and placed on custom-made four-by-eight-foot carts, interleaved with large sheets of cardboard between each box, and tied off, they are ready for transport.


We look forward to returning the collection to our new home in Iowa City—and each object that we pack brings us one step closer to that reality.

[From the Spring 2021 Stanley Museum of Art Magazine]

All photos by Steve Erickson