University of Cambridge Museums

Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums

Packing museum objects – the Packing Challenge

Last month, on 10 August, the Fitzwilliam Museum celebrated its 200th birthday with an event for the local community. You may have heard of the beautiful cake “fit for a Lord”, the performance by Morris Dancers and the acquisition of a sumptuous pair of 17th century Roman Pierre Dure cabinets, but much more happened that day, including a Conservation Packing Challenge!

A team of conservators, technicians and the Museum scientist presented the challenges of packing museum objects for travel: Where do objects travel to? How do they travel? How do we keep them safe? There was also an entertaining practical challenge: will your object survive the trip?

img_7039A map showing where our objects travelled to in the last year shows how mobile collections are – making collections widely available to the public is one of our core activities.

Loaning a museum object to another venue involves several steps and one of them is the packing. Packaging is used for protection against damage, for the security of the object, and for the safety of people moving the object. Ideally, a bespoke case made from archival quality materials is produced by conservators and technicians or by a specialist art shipper to our specification.

img_7028A selection of museum packaging was displayed on the day. Crates are designed to give maximum protection, safe handling and transport of their contents. They contain padding, custom-made supports and cushioning to fit various types of objects. They can be labelled with signs to warn people of the fragility of the object but also to ascertain whether the object contains any hazardous materials.

Bespoke box made especially for the object, containing cut to shape polyethylene foam as well as padding with Tyvek (an inert spun-bonded non-woven polyethylene) for the Roman Egyptian mummy portrait of a 7 year old child called Didyme.


A poster showing historic made-to-measure packages demonstrated that some object also have permanent housings.


The main packing materials used for supporting objects are acid-free tissue paper (the object is protected by the cushioning effect offered by the air inside the puff), acid-free cardboard (tubes and boxes) and polyethylene foams available in several thicknesses and easy to cut to shape.

The Packing Challenge
Of course, the best way to learn is to put knowledge into practice, and if possible, to have fun doing it.

img_7095We had a selection of non-Museum objects: handleless mugs, detested presents and other bits of abandoned crockery. Those accepting the challenge chose an object, chose their packing materials and their methods of packing, then crossed their fingers as we hurled their parcels from the top of the step ladder to simulate a collision.

Even Tim Knox, the Director of the Fitwzilliam Museum had a go at packing… but did his object survive? Yes – even though we threw it repeatedly!

The event was a success, with many interesting discussions and a lot of fun!

Find out more about packing museum objects online.

Gwendoline Lemee, Assistant Book Conservator, Fitzwilliam Museum

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