Packing crates: A Tale of Old vs New.

The bedrock of loans and exhibitions, the time tested method of transporting objects from A to B and a concept that is centuries old: the packing crate. The UKRG’s Hands on Registration event ended with Constantine’s Mark Hunt who gave a guided tour from the history of the packing crate to the newest in crate innovations.

Mark started by signposting Art in Transit: Handbook for Packing and Transport Paintings as a go to guide for registrars and technicians everywhere. This was the first scientific investigation of its kind into the packing crate providing the first industrial standard. Tate were responsible for the earliest crate specification for the iconic yellow crate which has since been widely adopted.

In order to further investigate the exacting science of the packing crate, Mark headed to two factories to record a behind the scenes glimpse of their very different production methods.

The traditional yellow crate was up first, and Mark started by visiting a workshop in the East end of London where they produce 20-30 crates a day. Working from bespoke paper orders one person goes through the entire manufacturing process, creating the finished product almost entirely by hand. The main components of a traditional crate are plywood, heat-treated timber, glue, paint, nails and staples. Mark highlighted that the main cause of expense in this process is the laborious fitting of screws to the outside of the crate.

The innovative Turtle crate developed by Hizkia Van Kralingen was up next. Mark headed to Airborne in Berkshire to witness how these crates of dutch design are manufactured. Unlike the traditional crate, Turtle crates are all made to a standard size. The main components are also somewhat different. The Turtle is made from fibreglass, two types of foam and neoprene sheets. Crates are shaped using a molding process. It takes an entire day to make one crate as a new mold has to be created each time. The crate is fitted out with insulation panels and soft foam. A black, velcro wrapped board floats in the create which allows it to minimise shock to the art work which is attached to the board with velcro-backed packing blocks.

Accepting that both models were equally fit for purpose, Mark’s comparison of the two crates was based upon the timely issue of sustainability and re-usability. During production there were low levels of waste from both processes. Despite its durability, however, the traditional crate is very difficult to recycle. When not being used for transportation purposes, traditional crates tend to be used as storage but this relies upon collections stores being large enough to accommodate them. The rent-a-crate concept of Turtle means that it is ultimately reusable. A crate has yet to be thrown away attesting to their at least twenty year lifespan. For most institutions, the practicality of the traditional crate means that it still wins out.

In response to Mark’s talk conference delegates aired their concerns over the inability of the Turtle to accommodate 3D as well as 2D objects. There was also an emphasis on the availability of other reusable crates such as Rokbox and a desire for Museums to take a proactive approach to adopt a new more sustainable standard.

Written by Eve Sladdin, Collections Information Assistant Registrar, National Galleries of Scotland