A Collections Move Project at the Royal Ontario Museum

On September 28th, 2015 I joined the ROM’s Preparator crew. Our goal was to relocate over 25,000 artifacts that were being stored inside the McLaughlin Planetarium – to an offsite storage facility. Emptying the Planetarium building of ROM collections was necessary because the building was sold to the University of Toronto. The project continued (with various staffing/scheduling changes) until April of 2017 (though work related to the project continues off-site). 

The McLaughlin Planetarium, Toronto (2015).

In the beginning, four preparators were assigned to this project. We worked closely with the technician, Carol who managed the project. It was clear that all of the collections stored in the building needed custom packing solutions, and we met regularly with Carol and technicians Melissa and Cheryl to plan, adapt and prepare shipments for travel. 

The collections that needed to be relocated varied considerably. There were a lot of large and heavy furniture items, coins, medals, ceramics, arms & armour. They were stored mostly on steel racking, and had to be transported through several narrow corridors in order to reach the loading dock. Even though all of these artifacts would need to be individually assessed and packed, we attempted to conceive of flexible -and reusable- systems that could work for various types of material. 

Building on lessons learned from previous collections relocation projects at the ROM, as well as helpful materials available online from the National Museum of the American Indian – which undertook a similar project– we began to formulate a workflow. 

Transportation

One of the first challenges we sought to address was a practical one. How could we physically transport these collections from the museum to the storage facility?

An early idea considered by our manager was to purchase a large moving truck, use it for the duration of the move project, then sell the vehicle and recoup some of the costs. A good idea that might work for some institutions, but there were liability concerns and initial costs that were hard to justify.

Ultimately, we decided to hire a contractor with experience moving art and collections. But several challenges arose. First, transporting museum collections was common at the ROM, but was generally done on a much smaller scale and movers were available “on demand”. But for the planetarium project, we would need to arrange frequent shipments. How could we plan for regular shipments if we did not yet know the pace of our work? 

For example, If we had scheduled a delivery (which is almost always required by movers) but had encountered some delay in the packing process, we might find ourselves having to pay for a truck that we couldn’t use (since it was booked in advance). Any company that we were going to work with would have to be sensitive to these concerns, flexible in cases where we didn’t have enough material prepared or where inclement weather made moving collections problematic (we are in Toronto, after all).

Once we had a company to work with, we noted the dimensions of their vehicle fleet and could specify truck sizes. Melissa, one of the technicians used SketchUp to map out potential shipments that would maximize interior space, artifact and crate sizes. Her abilities also enabled us to precisely plan out the shelving at the collections storage facility. Similarly sized artifacts could be assigned to shelves set at a similar height. This maximized the usage of space.

Inspired by the NMAI collection move, we developed reusable travelling crate boxes. These were available as large cardboard containers that we could line with ethafoam, and affix to standard sized pallets with webbing strap and buckles. Some were available as “telescopic” style, with various heights achievable, and some were boxes with a lid -which could als be used upside-down, to make a tray to simplify the removal of large, bulky artifacts.


Reusable packing, though cost efficient, also required that the shipping company could return empty packing material to the museum. As a result, we scheduled moving days that involved two trips from the museum (with the return trip being used to send empty containers back to the museum to be reused).

The night before a moving day we would ensure we had enough packed materials for two truckloads. We would stage these materials near the loading dock. The next morning, a truck would arrive at the museum, we would load it, track it and transport the material off site, where a crew was waiting to unload the vehicle. The truck would wait while the artifacts were unloaded from their reusable packaging, and would be loaded back onto the truck and returned to the museum. Then, we would unload this empty packing material and load the truck for one more trip to offsite storage. After the second load was delivered, the truck did not wait for empty packing material and did not return to the museum. The packing materials from this second shipment could be reloaded the next time the truck came to the storage facility with a return trip to the ROM.

This staggered, reusable packing material approach worked very well. Since some of our collections were being shipped and stored on what we called “permanent” pallets, we would attempt to maximize these artifacts for loading on the second vehicle.

Packing Process

When we began the project, we set up a working area just outside of the collections storage space. Supplies were purchased as required, and each collection type had been assessed by Carol beforehand.

The first items to be removed were picture and painting frames. Since many of these were intended to be reused in exhibitions, we created an inventory list and labeled each package. These frames varied greatly in their dimensions, so we purchased large rolls of cardboard that we could cut to size and tape the ends to make custom boxes.

After the frames had been relocated, we moved on to a more fragile object type: Ceramics. Particularly useful were plastic “Schafer” bins, with locking lids. We developed numerous ways to cavity pack fragile collections inside these rigid containers. Pottery shards were packed in ehtafoam with cavities cut out, lined with felt, and laid over with fine poly sheeting.

Poly sheeting could also be used to “tuck” fragile objects into position to keep it secure in transit, as seen in the above photo on the left.

A combination of ethafoam, felt, poly and archival cardboard could create “guillotine” style pads that would prevent collections from moving.

Most of the artifacts were moved on pallets. This included the boxed painting frames, shaffer containers and most other collections (other than furniture). The pallets were simple: a 40” x 42” piece of ¾” plywood with three 2×4’s (stood on their sides) underneath. As a means of conveyance, this system worked very well because almost anything could be secured to the pallet and moved easily with pump trucks.

A particularly useful solution was the use of pallet sized cardboard boxes. We attached webbing straps with buckles to the pallet base and placed the cardboard boxes on top. These boxes were available also as “telescopic”, so that the lid of the box was long and could make a cardboard box up to 5’ high. In cases where we used telescopic boxes, we also used ethafoam “corners” to prevent the box lid from sliding downward and exert any direct pressure against the material inside.

A drawback to pallets however, is that artifacts would ideally not be stacked on top of other artifacts. This is not always practical for large scale collections move projects. We limited the number of stacked layers and only stacked boxes when the interior structure of the box was sturdy, or reinforced on the inside by ethafoam, styrofoam or some other rigid material. Layers were interleaved with some padding or cardboard to more evenly distribute the weight.

For other artifacts, we purchased cardboard boxes in sizes that would fit the pallet footprint size most effectively, and bought as many as we could in bulk to accommodate a range of artifact sizes. These were all reinforced with foam padding, and artifacts were usually wrapped in layers of acid-free tissue, then other padding/void fill was used to protect the pieces in transit. 

Pallet wrap was needed to secure pallets with numerous boxes, and cardboard corners were also used to make the bundle more rigid and better able to be secured in the moving vehicle. In some cases, additional material was added to the platform to secure the boxes, as seen below in the corner pieces being used on the pallet to secure the load.

Even though the artifacts were to be unpacked upon arrival at the storage facility, we still limited the use of commercial packing material. However, many of these materials were highly effective in protecting material in transit, and because they were removed upon arrival, we were confident that they were an effective solution. Some padding materials include bubble wrap, packing “peanuts” and crumpled brown paper sheets.

Perhaps the most cost effective void-fill was the brown crumpled paper, which would fill in the areas around the packed artifacts. Another involved the use of a heat sealer and plastic tubing that enabled us to create custom sized plastic bags. These bags could be filled with pella-span (packing peanuts) and sealed on both ends, creating custom sized void fill ‘pillows’. Both of these were reusable, and were packed up and returned to the museum when possible so that we could use them repeatedly. We even made a makeshift packing peanut ‘dispenser’ to make filling the bags easier.

One clever solution that Stephen, my coworker came up with, was to create an ethafoam grid inside the large palletized boxes that would divide the interior space. This worked very well, especially with furniture items. 

We would cut slits into the ethafoam backing and pass webbing straps through them to secure items like chairs to the back panel, buckling them in place. This used the same 2” webbing and buckles that we used to secure the boxes to the pallets.

Furniture Packing

Other prep work, as seen in the above photos, included the production of custom Tyvek covers for furniture items. Each piece was measured and large rolls of Tyvek were washed with a small amount of Orvus paste to soften their fabric and make them more easy to manipulate and sew. Covers were made that would either slip over the entire piece of furniture, or simply to cover the fabric sections (such as the seat cushion).

As we continued to clear out material from the Planetarium, we realized that we could use some of the newly created empty space to facilitate the “staging” of future loads. We had several rows of storage racks completely removed from the planetarium to open up a larger space on the floor that enabled us to work inside the collections room. If you are considering a similar move project, realize that as you relocate material, you may be able to repurpose some of that space to assist with the move project. This is especially helpful where space is limited.

Other large furniture items were transported on what we called “Permanent Pallets”. These were custom made pallets designed to be just slightly larger than the artifact for which they were designed. These were to be used for the long term storage and to facilitate their movement where needed, using large locking caster wheels, or Skid-Mate feet.

Furniture items packed on these would be padded out with large “L-shaped” ethafoam pads, or other padding systems that put minimal pressure on the artifact at it’s most stable and secure points.

Skid-mates are plastic feet that can be attached to plywood bases to create custom sized pallets. These are used at the ROM for the storage of numerous large furniture pieces. We also used these pallets for transportation, and would secure the furniture pieces to the moving truck with appropriate padding, often using L-shaped ethafoam blocks.

In the museum, we found that there were certain “pinch points” leading to the loading dock. One of these was a narrow corridor that turned on a 90 degree angle. This made it difficult to navigate any of the permanent furniture pallets with a pump truck attached. Though we considered the size of the pump trucks in the design of the placement of the skid mate feet, we failed to recognize that there would be some narrow corridors that would require us to be able to lift the pallet from the side as well. 

A clever solution was devised by Gloria, which we called skid boards (since they resembled a skateboard). These were small plywood slats with caster wheels attached. They were made slightly larger than the pallet, with a 90 degree edge at the front and back. Pallets could then be lifted with a pump truck, the skid boards could be slid underneath, and as the pallet lowered, it would be captured in between the side edges. Now, the pallets could be transported as if they were on a dolly, and the skidboards could be removed before the object was placed in storage. 

Transporting some of our fragile, delicate furniture pieces required a different approach. In consultation with Conservator Greg Kelley, we came up with a system for carrying certain tables by suspending them on their apron. These pieces had issues with the stability of their legs and it was determined that travelling them on their legs was not ideal. Two solutions were developed to safely accommodate various sizes of tables in a reusable system that could attach to a pallet.

This system was built largely from 2×4” lumber, with a sliding, adjustable padded base.

The 2×4 track in the centre enabled the platform to accommodate a range of delicate table sizes for transportation. They could be fixed in place with screws or blocks.

Some tables have a cross-piece that connects the legs at the bottom, which means they could not be placed on top of the sliding pads. For these tables, we developed an alternative that would slip through the table legs on one side, lift the table up by the apron and attach to a platform.

This made the transportation of delicate furniture items easy, reusable and safe. A similar system was used for tables with a centre post, but was composed of several angles pieces that would hold the table in place, centred on the pallet. Foam padding was used to support it in as many places as possible.

Later in the project, we experimented with more 2×4 construction systems for the transportation of collections. This became extremely useful, reusable and safe for various artifacts. With the pallet providing a rigid base, it is easy to construct a wooden “grid” on top with ethafoam, Volara or Tyvek as padding in between. 

On two sides of the pallet are removable side walls. Boards can be laid across the side panels, slid towards the artifact and secured in place to the side panel. Once several 2×4 frames had been built, it was easy to reuse them, and adapt them to suit nearly any size of artifact. Various 2×4 braces and brackets were built and were modified to meet each object’s unique shape, contours and conservation requirements.

This system worked well for artifacts that were too tall to be placed into a reusable crate or container. The side panels also work to protect artifacts from the straps required to secure the pallet inside a moving truck. Ethafoam pads can be cut to the shape of the object, and secured in place. The entire load could be wrapped in poly sheeting or Tyvek to further protect the pieces during transit.

Miscellaneous Packing Systems

Chandeliers

A number of small chandeliers required transportation to our storage facility so we developed individual travel and storage crates for each. These crates used a sliding track on top that would accommodate a plywood board from which the fixture could be suspended. The sliding top section could also be secured in place with screws, or with an additional wooden block to “capture” the board in place. This design enables the object to be easily loaded and unloaded. 

The crates would be lined with ehtafoam, Volara and use twill or other means of securing fragile glass components.

Swords/Polearms

For the ROM’s collection of European arms and armour, a different approach was taken. Swords were categorized by their length, and grouped together. These groupings were then to be placed into custom boxes that we produced in-house using coroplast (corrugated cardboard). We built the boxes and their lids and lined them with foam padding. Swords were placed into the boxes on elevated slats of foam, lined with volara, and then another layer of foam block was placed on top. These were secured in place with twill tape, and could accommodate several swords, sometimes up to four or five per box.

Corrugated plastic can be difficult to work with. Folding over the ends to create a box is challenging since the plastic does not keep its new shape without extra framing. To work around this issue, we used hot melt glue and punched holes into one side of the corrugated flute. The glue would harden and set itself in place inside the corrugated channel. By holding the edges over the end of a table, or using steel blocks as weights, the glue would cool and hold the corners of the box together. There was still some flexibility on the sides of the containers, but the custom lids would help to keep this to a minimum. 

A fast and convenient way to manipulate coroplast (in order to cut and fold panels) is the use of the “Coro Claw” coroplast cutter. This tool fits inside the fluted channels and can either cut through one wall to make it easy to fold, or through the entire panel.

An alternative that would work well for this would be to use a wood frame on each end of the proposed box and to span a length of cardboard between (as seen in this note from the Canadian Conservation Institute). 

Heavy and Large Objects

There were some cast iron wood stoves that also needed to travel, but they had been disassembled. For these, I was able to repurpose a crate and create enough space to slide each individual section into a channel.

Some objects were packed using the “cavity” method, with plywood boxes facilitating their long term storage. The leg vise was packed into 2” ethafoam with a tyvek barrier. To attach the tyvek to the ethafoam, a slit is cut around the perimeter of the cut out cavity about ¾” deep. Once the Tyvek was cut to an appropriate size, it would be laid over the cavity and tucked into the slit with  a bone folder (or other tool).

Saddles

There is a  helpful article on creating a saddle mount at the US National Park Service website, which we modified for our own collection. Using plywood, we create a simple frame of three upright panels, and laid a sheet of coroplast over top. This was then fixed to the frame with screws, and ethafoam strips were glued to the top to take the shape of the saddle. We integrated webbing straps into handles, and laid Tyvek over the entire mount.

A daunting item to pack was a large crucifix that had been suspended on the end of the pallet rack. The size of this artifact (over 6 feet long) made moving it within the museum difficult. To overcome this, we modified an A-Frame with a sheet of plywood and fixed two plywood brackets to it. These would allow us to hang the crucifix sideways and roll it to its destination.

As most of the collections cleared out of the Planetarium building, we also worked to reuse some of the racking and shelving systems at our new facility. 

Conclusion

A collections move project is a job that will be unique to each institution. The types of collections that need to move will have various conservation requirements. Climate, infrastructure, availability of materials, budget, staff, time and a range of other factors influence how this type of project will be undertaken. Additionally, the project changes as it develops. Some solutions that we brainstormed by the end of the project would have been effective if we had been using them at the beginning. Ultimately, the safeguarding of collections is the guiding principle of this type of project. Keeping this in mind will ensure a successful artifact relocation program.

3 thoughts on “A Collections Move Project at the Royal Ontario Museum”

  1. Holy Moly – What an undertaking! This must have been super stressful, but also a great exercise in problem solving. I definitely have some job envy, the incredible artifacts you must have seen. What would be in your top 5 ?

    1. Hi Christine, as I become more acquainted with the collections, my appreciation grows. A top highlight from this project would be a German made sword ca. 1500, which stood out because it had my last name “Clemens” stamped on it.

      1. Oh, that would be wicked to have a family name on something that old!
        Forgive the “cold call”, I’m so fascinated by the things behind closed doors at the ROM since I’ve filmed there so many times for TV. Would you be up for a coffee sometime to pick your brain for the secrets? Shoot me a line if you’re down – christine@sinkingship.ca

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