Takeaways from China

27 Jan 2020

The following is taken from an ICON article written by Conservator, Robert Entwistle

Over the past 4 years Colchester + Ipswich Museums have had partnerships with 2 Chinese Museums, Xuzhou and Nanjing to put on exhibitions in Colchester Castle. I was lucky enough to be one of the conservators who would assess the objects, condition report, assist and oversee the transportation of the collections. I want to share with fellow conservators my experiences of transporting and couriering such large collections and some advice which may help. I also want to flag up recent changes in the law, which changed and further complicated our packing schedule.

From Xuzhou Museum in 2009 we borrowed a collection of small terra cotta tomb statues, and from Nanjing Museum in 2012 we borrowed a selection of objects including silk robes, ceramics, metal and jade objects including a jade suit. Condition reporting large diverse collections such as these, a long way from home can prove daunting, especially as time constraints mean you may only have one or two days at the most to complete the process. Cultural differences and the language barrier also add to problems.

After my first visit to China I decided to learn Mandarin, and in October 2012 completed an Open University course. Being able to speak even basic Mandarin was a help and at least showed willing. Most of my Chinese colleagues spoke some English, so between us we got along.

In the past I had often couriered 3 or 4 objects, usually paintings, but being responsible for condition reporting and couriering collections of over 100 objects was a different matter.




Having condition reported collections in the past I knew I had to have as much information as possible before I set out. I also knew I would have little time so suggested we use a tick sheet for each object, detailing the usual damage such as cracks, missing areas, repairs etc and a space for an image and a sketch. Obtaining images from Xuzhou Museum of the tomb statues was difficult, due I am sure to misunderstandings, and the fact that some images did not exist. Generic images were sent not specific, which was not known until I arrived and there were no scales in the images. Also our design department was anxious to know weights, sizes, and if any mounts would be travelling with the objects.

In Xuzhou the tick sheets worked well and acted as prompts. However the generic images were spotted, the same soldier 6 times for instance. Since I took my own laptop and a camera, I was able to take more pictures and update the tick sheets with new images and information whilst I was on site. From past experience I was wary of using a local Chinese pc. Different systems and different programmes might not have been compatible. I had tried to run a cd on a Chinese pc in the past only to find that it would not play.

My Chinese colleagues were very hospitable and there were quite a few meetings. I became worried that I would never get to see the objects. However, once the negotiations and pleasantries were concluded, my work in the museum lab began. The objects came fast and furious. Keeping track of them all was a challenge. The tick sheets were a definite help in speeding the condition reporting and acting as prompts. However I had to be assertive and tell them to slow down and even call objects back for a further look. This frustrated my hosts, but couriers have to be satisfied they have fully documented the object. Not to do this leaves the borrowing institution open to claims of damage.




For the next exhibition with Nanjing the tick sheet system was used again however this time we re-vamped the layout and added an area for details on packing, an estimate of weight, and generally made the form more flexible to suit the different materials and objects. Because of the different methods of working in Nanjing Museum, I made a scoping visit to assist in choosing the objects, made preliminary condition reports and took as many digital images as I could. When the objects were packed for transport, my colleague made the final condition reports, added to my preliminary observations and took more images.

I was surprised that the Chinese conservators took no part in overseeing the couriering when the objects were coming from and being returned to China. They were mostly concerned with security and would only intervene if they were unhappy on some specific point. All the packing, reporting and travel overseeing was the preserve totally of the British couriers, both myself and my colleagues.

The Chinese couriers put seals on all the cases where and when the objects were displayed. In transport all the crates had seals placed on them which were replaced every time a crate was opened by the carriers or by customs. When the crates were placed in overnight storage before condition reporting in Nanjing, I was asked to place my initials on the door seal. This was to ensure that no tampering with the objects could take place.



For both exhibitions the airports used were Heathrow and Shanghai Pudong. As per usual at both airports I was allowed to oversee the palitisation of the objects and their arrangement on the pallet. This was obviously easier at Heathrow than Shanghai, however by my fourth trip I was able to say “slow down” and “please be careful “ in Chinese.



Both times at Pudong Airport Shanghai I had to intervene with the cargo handlers. The objects were transported to and from the aircraft on trucks that did not have pneumatic tyres and they were driven much too fast. The vibration and shock to the objects was a great cause for concern. I was surprised that it was me that had to do this and not the carriers or the Chinese museum staff. Shock and vibration data loggers in some crates would have shown evidence of this less than gentle treatment.

Our carrier in Britain was Momart and in China, Huaxi. Both carriers were extremely professional, but again they do things differently. Xuzhou Museum packed its own objects but Nanjing Museum gave this over to Huaxi. Huaxi made the crates, cut the foam and packed the objects. Huaxi supplied a packing diagram of each crate. This was essential as the packing was a complex process. Boxes containing objects and the foam packing would only fit in one way. Without a diagram of each crate, re-packing would have been a nightmare.

The crates were made of plywood, which whilst cheaper, is problematic. Some crates had been made too small, whilst others had warped and were difficult to close. I also noticed that the British trucks were all air sprung, whilst the Chinese trucks were not. Also the different ways the carriers secured the objects in the trucks caused me some concern. The airport handlers drove the crates from the cargo sheds to the loading area whilst they were unsecured in the back of a lorry. I queried this and was told it was only a short trip. The short trip was 4 or 5 miles, China is a big country!



Momart secured the crates to the side of the trucks thus lessening the vibration to the crates as there was less contact with the lorry floor. Huiaxi strapped the crates securely to the floor of the lorry, which I thought would increase vibration damage. I mentioned this but did not know the Mandarin for “increased vibration damage”. This is how Huaxi transport their objects. Interfering with the working practice methods of professional carriers would not have gone down well.

Keeping a good working relationship with the carriers I think is important, so once I had voiced my concerns and they had been considered and then respectfully rejected, I had done as much as I could. It was a judgement call, and I chose to trust the carriers. However the different methods of securing the crates resulted in no damage to the objects.

Condition reporting when the objects were returned was the reverse of the outward trip. My Chinese hosts took their time to examine every object in great detail. The comprehensive condition reports written by myself and my colleague, and the many images were invaluable in resolving queries and possible disagreements. On a number of occasions I was able to use the images and condition reports to show that the object had returned in exactly the same condition as it had left.



There was only one unresolved difference of opinion about an object’s condition. On these occasions I never argue, as a courier I am alone in a foreign country. I take a lot of images, sign the report as possibly disputed, and suggest the matter be discussed by those with a higher pay grade than ours. I never argue the point, I agree to disagree, and always end the discussion with a smile and a handshake. Quite often this is usually the end of the matter, as indeed it was in this case.

Once the condition reporting was over and all objects signed off I could relax, enjoy my hosts’ hospitality, take some leave, and practice my schoolboy Mandarin. My trips to China were a wonderful experience. I find the country immensely interesting and the people at first wary, inquisitive and then very friendly and incredibly polite. Being able to communicate, no matter how badly was greatly appreciated.



Changes in Aviation Security Regulations

On the return journey to Nanjing we were informed by Momart of a change in the Department for Transport Aviation Security Regulations that will affect all objects transported on passenger aircraft.

For a number of years, all objects that do not originate from a ‘Known Consignor’ (ie a consignor whose premises and staff training meet the necessary security standards set out in DFT regulations) have had to be screened by other methods. Most often, this has meant works being hand-searched on site by approved licensed carriers (known as Regulated Agents). In January 2013 these regulations were tightened. All objects being transported on passenger aircraft, and which cannot undergo alternative screening, have to be packed and hand searched on the secure premises of a licensed carrier.



For Colchester + Ipswich Museums this meant that all the objects had to be packed and transported to Momart’s approved warehouse in London only to be unpacked, thoroughly hand searched and packed again. Obviously this increases the risk of damage to the objects and adds to costs. Institutions may wish to send a representative to see the object unpacked, searched and packed yet again. Insurers may also to increase their premiums. In our case the search was carried out in the warehouse in less than ideal circumstances. There were no special clean areas for opening the crates and unpacking the boxes. The Chinese courier could not understand the reason for unpacking the crates after they had been so carefully and securely packed.

The same process will have to take place on the return journey should the country concerned be bound by the new regulations – note that each country will have its own security screening processes, they are not necessarily the same as the methods as used in the UK. Momart and other carriers have apologised and wish to state that they have to comply with the law or risk prosecution and the loss of their license. However, in the future special clean secure areas should be provided by carriers for the searches to take place.



Alternatives to the hand search option are for museums to become known Consignors, or for objects to undergo other screening methods – suitability of these options will need to be determined by each museum based on it’s collection and number of airfreight consignments each year. Crates etc can be x-rayed and avoid being searched, should such a facility be available. Obviously the x-ray facility will need to be large enough to accommodate the objects and its packing. Some carriers may be able to organise this for customers, but this will obviously incur a charge. The National Gallery have determined that the x-raying of objects is unlikely to affect the object or the potential for future TL examination. They see x-raying where possible as preferable to being obliged to open a crate.

Colchester + Ipswich Museums loans many objects to institutions abroad and this year we have had to factor in extra days for the courier to be present when the object is unpacked and the packaging searched by the carrier. There are also scheduling implications in that loans will need to be collected sooner than was envisaged for the checks to take place. This is causing headaches for the loaning and borrowing institutions and the carriers. Remember these only apply to aviation. Boat road, and rail travel are unaffected.

More details about the regulation changes can be found on:

and some general info on DFT Aviation Security here:

Thanks to my colleagues at Colchester + Ipswich Museums, especially Emma Hogarth and Steve Yates. Thanks also to Julie Prance from MOMART.


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