• On the Reuse of Crates

    Over the last few months I have spoken to several colleagues about the practice of crate reuse and what that practice is at their respective institutions, or businesses. My own experience at different institutions has never allowed me to initiate a sound crate re-use program as it has always been a matter of space (lack thereof) and the real estate a successful program would require.The practice like any, has its pros and cons and there are many factors to consider before reusing a crate (object safety of course is paramount). Based on conversations with my peers I thought this was a topic worth looking into further as it is particularly relevant at this moment in time given the many forums on sustainability in museums over the last few years.

    After thinking about a way to construct something on the topic I came to the conclusion that an interesting way to go about it would be to pose the same series of questions to a respected group of individuals whose opinions I value, and whose voices are important in our community.
    Hopefully this discussion may be helpful to those who are also looking into the feasibility of a reuse program at their own institution or business.

    The individuals I have asked to participate in this questionnaire are as follows:

    Chuck Agro, Manager, Packing and Art Services at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Chuck Agro is currently the Packing and Art Services Manager for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Chuck has previously served as the Operations Manager for Marian Goodman Gallery, Head Preparator for Ronald Feldman Gallery, Special Projects and General Manager for Fine Arts Express, Director of The University of Buffalo’s Bethune Gallery and Preparator for HALLWALLS an alternative gallery in Buffalo, NY.

    Chuck has been the project manager for numerous museum and collection relocations including MoMA, Deutsche Bank, Hasbro and the Harvard Library.

    Chuck is also an adjunct professor and has taught Undergraduate and Graduate painting and drawing for NYU and the Maine College of Art since 1995 and has taught “Object Care and Display for Collections Managers” for NYU’s SCPS program since 2011.

    Greg G. Gahagan, Operations Manager at Ship/Art, San Francisco and ICEFAT Green Committee Chair

    Greg has been with Ship/Art since 1991. As operations manager he oversees the day to day operations of the company to insure that clients, employees and artworks get the finest treatment possible. He handles large scale projects as well as manages the crating and museum services departments. Greg is an avid surfer who was born and raised on the beautiful coast of California. He is always looking for creative ways to reduce Ship/Arts impact on the environment.
    Greg is also the Chairman of the ICEFAT Green Committee and has spoken at numerous international conferences on topics such as packing methods and materials to environmentally sustainable business practices. Greg and the Green Committee presented at the 2010 European Registrars Conference held in Amsterdam. Their topic was “The Greening of Fine Art Transportation: What color is your crate?”.

    Rita Gomez, Lead Preparator at The Getty Center, Los Angeles

    Rita Gomez is a Lead Preparator at the Getty Museum, specializing in Packing and Crating since 1986. She has developed the packing systems in use at the Getty today. Rita has lent her expertise to many projects including developing packing techniques for Tutankhamen’s Tomb with the Getty Conservation Institute and St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula for the packing and movement of Manuscript and Icon collections for exhibition.
    Prior to the Getty, Rita was the warehouse manager for Cooke’s Crating.

    Mark Milani, Chief Preparator at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

    After graduating from Maryland Institute College of Art in 1995, started in the fine-arts handling industry with Artex FAS in 9/1995 as a driver and handler. Within a few years, moved into the crate shop where packing, crating, and rigging skills were acquired. Organized and supervised numerous large, traveling shows for the National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, Hirshhorn Museum of Art, and the National Museum of American History. A brief, self-employed stint as a carpenter/designer followed after 8 years at Artex. Surroundart, a museum-services business was the next stop for several years running the crate shop and assisting in packing and installation. In the fall of 2007, relocated to Kansas City, MO to become the Chief Preparator for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Recently, in 5/2013, the Preparation Department was merged with the Fabrication Department to create a new Exhibition Installation/Collections Handling department to fulfill the ever-growing and time-sensitive museum schedule.

    Mark Slattery, Senior Technician, Art Handling at The National Gallery of London

    Mark Slattery Mr Slattery graduated in 1984 in Fine Art (Painting) from Chelsea School of Arts, London. After working as a driver / art handler with Martinspeed Fine Art in London from 1984 through 1986, he was employed as Gallery Manager at Vipasha (Ltd) a London based dealer in Indian antiquities where his duties included display, storage, packing, crating and setting up and running a packing facility in India.

    In 1993 he joined The National Gallery, London as an Art Handler/Technician and subsequently moved up the ranks to Deputy Head and now Senior Technician, Art Handling. He is currently heading up the exhibitions programme including the Touring Program. His particular area of interest and expertise is in the development of special handling equipment, specialist picture crating and particularly display related hardware.

    Mark has previously spoken at international conventions including AAM where he introduced The Art & Object Handlers Assoc (UK) and the European Registrars Conference, Rome 2002 where his topic was The Moving and Handling of Oversize Exhibits.

    Mark Wamaling, Training and Development Manager at Artex, D.C. and P.A.C.C.I.N. Chair

    Mark has been an avid supporter of the preparation profession in both the museum and commercial sectors through his staff training and customer services programing at Artex. He has also been a contributor to P.A.C.C.I.N. regional workshops, webinar and conferences over the past 20 years. Mark exhibits his photography and mixed media work on a regular basis and has been a designer and builder of kinetic sculptures.

    Bio summary:
    Artex Fine Art Services (1990-present)
    Training and Development Manager (2013-present)
    Director of Crating & Packing (2000-2013)
    Crating Manager (1992-2000)
    Crate shop technician and packer (1990-1992)
    Artransport: Driver/Crate technician and packer (1985-1989)

    (a contractual relationship exists between the NGA and Artex so Mark Wamaling and Judy Cline will answer some of these questions together)

    Judy Cline, Registrar for Outgoing Loans at The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

    Judy has been employed at the National Gallery of Art since 1984 and has worked specifically with outgoing loans since 1992. At her suggestion, the NGA worked with Artex in October 2000 to contract and manage a refit program for their outgoing loans crates. Judy has also spoken at the European Registrars Conference as well as AAM on the subject of courier training.

    The Questions

    Kurt Christian. What do you call this practice at your institution/business (retrofit, refurbish, etc.)?

    C.A. I have managed several institutions or businesses that have had to refit crates and it has always been discussed as a retrofit or refit.

    G.G. No real formal title but in general we refer to them as Refits.

    R.G. Refitting crates.

    M.M. Retro-fitting.

    M.S. Case Conversion.

    M.W.Refit crates.

    K.C. How frequently is this practice used and have you seen the frequency increase over the last few years?

    C.A. The practice of retrofitting crates is common and the frequency it is used has been constant. This practice is used primarily because of time limitations or when retrofitting a crate is necessary after a change to the shipment has occurred or a failure to the internal bracing and blocks after multiple uses, such as in a traveling exhibition, has occurred. Retrofitting is rarely used as a cost cutting measure.

    G.G. Not often enough! Currently about 15% of our museum crates are refits.
    We have been building a stockpile of used museum crates for a while and now have some accounts that are open to the idea of using them. We expect an increase in the coming year and hope to get to 30% for 2014.

    R.G. We average 80-100 loans per year from the permanent collection. Many loans include multiple crates. 30% of the crates are refit. Our refit crate inventory increases at a rate of 10% per year.

    M.M. Somewhere in the range of 2 out of every 7 crates, and perhaps an increase of 50% over the last 3 years.

    M.S. We rent our casing stock by the shipment. All the cases we use are capable of being refitted within certain parameters.

    M.W. On a weekly basis and yes it has increased.J.C.In fiscal 2013 over 700 crates were refitted for loan.

    K.C. Can you explain the process that determines when an object is a candidate for a crate re-use?

    C.A. Typically the dimensions are the primary factor. If a crate falls into typical or standard framed 2D crate dimensions it may be held for reuse. Though there would need to be an immediate need. Otherwise the storage and cost of retrofit negates the value of the crate. Holding a 3D crate is unusual because the dimensions are usually specific to a unique piece. Retrofitting of 3D crates usually comprises new foam or braces for the same object.

    G.G..It is really a factor of size. We stock crates for the average range of 2D works that we handle. If the object is within that average size range then it becomes a candidate. We find the closest crate possible and check in with the client to see if they are open to using a refitted crate.

    R.G. Framed photographs and drawings make up the highest percentage of refit crates. Frame dimensions fit a standard variety of sizes. Painting crates are refitted for paintings of similar dimensions or refit with an inner box. Sculpture crates are rarely refitted.

    M.M. Generally, any painting crate that is EU certified. We tend to save crates with travel frames, and most top-load crates. So far, we have about 15 refits out on loan and another 25 in our storage area.

    M.S. Since all of the cases we use are convertible/re-configurable, it naturally follows that any object being transported by us will be a candidate for crate re-use.

    M.W. We mainly use crates for 2D works only. Either paintings in side or end loading crates or works on paper in top loading crates. J.C. Every outgoing loan is a candidate for a refit, measurements are taken on site at the lender location and then the inventory is perused. If a refit is not available an e-mail is sent requesting the lender to look for a certain size in the empties still on site, if there is still not one available, only then is a new crate built.

    Photo courtesy of Jim Carey (Artex)

    Photo courtesy of Jim Carey (Artex)

    Can you describe how you track/inventory crates that have been designated for re-use?

    C.A. Empty crates are entered into a database along with location, dimensions and other descriptive specifics. The crates are kept physically separate from new and incoming/outgoing crates or crates for destruction.

    G.G.Currently there is no tracking on them. We have them stored in one easily accessible location. At this point there are only 30 crates. We are expecting another 30 to return in the next few months at which time we will photograph, measure and have a database of them to make it easier to use them.

    R.G. The crate inventory we maintain assigns a number to all permanent collection crates. The database includes dimensions and each object the refit crate has accommodated since many of the same objects travel periodically. Crate numbers are entered into TMS and tracked with objects specific to these crates. For example: we have one crate that is used as a refit for 7 different paintings.

    M.M. Spreadsheet on our department drive that can be altered when a crate is used. All relevant data is included and we have the ID taped to the outside of the crate for easy identification.

    M.S. Our case supplier keeps the inventory of their case stock and will select and convert cases on our behalf according to our requirements. Whilst the cases are in use by us, we retain case information. Our Registrars collate this information.

    M.W. We use a barcode system with a searchable database for the size we need.

    K.C. What is the climate where the crates for re-use are stored?

    C.A. Temperature controlled.

    G.G. . The crates are stored in the non climate section of our warehouse. We are lucky to be located in an area that does not see wide swings in climate. Our location in South San Francisco remains pretty stable throughout the year.

    R.G. Temperature controlled storage 70 degrees +/- 2.

    M.M. Underground cave suite with constant temperature and 30-45% humidity.

    M.S. Our case supplier has an excellent quality warehouse and workshop where the cases are manufactured, stored and converted. Cases are routinely delivered to us several days in advance of the shipment dates. Our climate controlled environment allows the cases to equilibrate fully prior to packing.

    M.W. In temperature controlled space, not climate controlled. The crates get acclimatized before being packed.

    K.C. If they are not kept in a climate control space how long are they re-acclimated before use?

    C.A. Our process of retrofitting requires that a crate would be in a climate controlled area 10 working days prior to packing. The primary reason for this would be cleaning, refitting and painting.

    R.G. The crates are moved into gallery condition storage for a minimum of 2 weeks before packing.

    M.M. We acclimatize refit crates a minimum of [1] week prior to packing.

    M.W. In temperature controlled space, not climate controlled. The crates get acclimatized before being packed.

    J.C. Our refits are delivered to the lender site at least one week prior to packing.

    Do you reuse crates for 3D objects?

    C.A. No, as discussed above.

    G.G. Yes but very infrequently. We don’t see as many 3d objects coming through and as such we don’t stock as many crates.

    R.G. Rarely for large 3D objects, occasionally for small 3D objects packed in inner crates or boxes

    M.M. Rarely. Typically an inner box with a cavity pack or similar basic packing.

    M.S. We rarely have occasion to send 3D objects since we are a paintings based collection. Occasionally, we have to break large or elaborate picture frames down to their decorative components. In these circumstances, we often construct our own small crates to facilitate their safe transport. We have occasionally re-used old cases for this purpose.

    M.W. There has been more of a demand from museums to refit crates they have in their storage. J.C. The inner box for 3D works that are lent more than once are saved on site at the lender’s facility and the outer box is refit from the refit inventory.

    K.C. What is the minimum thickness of cushioning, and what type of cushioning is provided in reused crates?

    C.A. Typically 4.5-6.5”, cushioning and internal packing does not differ from our standard methods.

    G.G.We use a minimum of 2” foam cushioning around the object. The type of foam used depends on the needs of the piece and any particular specifications a lender might have provided. Typical foam is usually ethafoam or ester foam in varying sizes and density based on the weight of the piece and size of contact points. (There is also a 1-2 inches of thermal insulation as well.)

    R.G. 2”minimum for foam cushioning. All object crates are fit with cushion size and density specific to the size and weight of object and crate. Most common foam type is polyethylene foam.
    3” minimum thickness when we use Sorbothane as a cushioning material with coverage and density specific to the size and weight of the object and crate.
    M.M. 2” per side, usually 2.2# Ethafoam.

    M.S., Our cases are fully lined with a mixture of plastazote and polyethylene foam. We aim to exclude all air spaces inside the case, baring access for hands around the work. Our minimum thickness requirement is normally four inches of foam.

    M.W. With the 2D works we are using crates with ester foam so 4” pads are used for cushioning.

    K.C. How much is physically done to alter the crate (internal build ups, foam, new paint?) and do you have anything in place that helps you determine when the practice is or isn’t appropriate dimensionally with regards to the object?

    C.A. A reused crate would be scrapped down inside and out and repainted, new gasket applied, then refit with new internal packing and bracing. A crate is only used when it meets our specifications for size in relation to the object.

    At previous institutions a reuse of a shell may be required for a large relocation. In this case the cost of a relocation where crating is required, can be greatly reduced by analyzing the objects in terms of general size range and then building shells that will fit all of your large and medium objects. This means a 4” border between the outside edge of your largest frame to the inside edge of the crate. This can be done for generally 3 sizes and then the crates would be overcompensated with blocking when retrofit. This is usually done for short transits and quick unpacks where the crates are rotated.

    Commercially this is a similar strategy for galleries preparing for art fairs where objects of various sizes will be packed in shipping crates then the same crates are refit for the return of a different group of objects.

    G.G. Typically new foam and internal buildups. The crates in the inventory are varnished and may have only been sent to one or two venues. Typically they are pretty clean and only need labels removed. The labels come off cleanly on the varnish. As for appropriate dimensionally we really like to keep the dimensions as close as possible to what we would normally build. A refit crate is not normally used if it is more than 3-4 inches of extra space around the piece.

    R.G. Refits include new linings, cushioning, cleaning. We avoid using crates that increase the size larger than necessary. If proper cushioning cannot be applied effectively a refit crate is not used.

    M.M. We try to avoid foam alterations and construct the proper vehicle for the object (foam core trays and boxes, etc). Some repainting is done, and mostly removal of previous BOL stickers and borrower info. We try to make sure the refit is proportional to the object as best as we can, usually within 10” max overall.

    M.S. The internal space that the framed work occupies is reconfigured by altering the foam build-ups, in three dimensions. The case needs to be of sufficient size to contain the work with a minimum of four inches of foam in all three dimensions.

    M.W.We try to keep the foam in the existing layout as much as possible and just work on the internal components, i.e. trays and boxes. J.C. For travel boxes, the maximum re-usable width is 10 inches in either direction. Every effort is taken to keep crates traveling via airlines to 62 inches in height and skids and batons will be modified to reduce height if needed.

    Photo courtesy of Mark Milani, Chief Preparator at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

    Photo courtesy of Mark Milani, Chief Preparator at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

    Photo courtesy of Mark Milani, Chief Preparator at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

    K.C. What systems do you use to refit crates?

    C.A. G.G. R.G. M.M. M.S. M.W./J.C.
    Trays Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
    Captive Trays (Side Load) Yes
    Travel Frames Yes Yes, infrequently Yes Yes
    Removable Interior Panels with Foam Bumpers Attached (Foamcore or Coroplast) Yes Yes Yes, with foamcore and gatorfoam
    Interior Anchored Bracing Yes Yes
    Void-fill Boxes or Blocking Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
    Inner Boxes Yes Yes Yes, and crates Yes Yes
    Drawer Pack
    Re-configuration of the foam cushions and blocks Yes Yes Yes

    K.C. What would you say is the single most important factor when determining whether re-use is or isn’t appropriate (fiscal, environmental, other)?

    C.A. Size, IPPC qualifications, stability.

    G.G. Having enough stock of crates so that the refit crate isn’t too large.

    R.G. Size adaptability, microclimate requirement, and fiscal consideration.

    M.M. Fiscal. The time-sensitive objects that slipped through the process…

    M.S. The availability of an appropriate size case for the size of work to be transported.

    M.W. Commitment to the program. If you are committed in conducting a refit program, you must be prepared to provide the storage area for the crates, provide the labor to refit crates and to manage the program.

    K.C. What would you say are the biggest advantages to the practice of crate re-use?

    C.A. Since there has never been an appropriate solution to the use of wood and wood products for crates then my idealistic answer would be that it is beneficial to the environment. I doubt reusing crates has any real effect but it’s a start.

    The savings in time to build the crate shell is my primary advantage. Cost is not a factor as holding crates requires space and space costs money.

    If a crate sits in storage for more than 12 months before reuse you haven’t saved any of the cost. The preparation for a new vs. reused crate is a wash as a new interior, new paint and new hardware are always used so what you save is the cost of the shell and the labor to build the shell. If an example of a standard reused crate’s footprint is 48Lx18W” it will cost you a little more than $550 in labor and materials to construct.

    To hold this crate in storage you will be storing 6sf at about $7+ a sf per month with an increase of about 5% per year. The first year will cost you $500+ to store not including time/labor or transportation for movement. After a year you are losing money on this crate.

    G.G..If a reuse program is done well it can be economical advantage for everyone. It is not easy and requires a commitment from the museum side as well as the commercial side. It can mean lower final costs to the client as well as lower costs to the crating company in less wages and less materials. It can also offer a competitive advantage to the crating company. If you can offer a green product with equal or superior fit and finish to the competition at a lower price point then it makes it easy for the client to go green. It can be a challenge to have a reuse program make economical sense. If all else fails and you can’t make the numbers work then I guess the biggest advantage would be that you are giving the planet a break! I am sure future generations would love us to care as much about our environment as we much as we care for our artworks!

    R.G. Labor saving- refit vs. build new, storage saving- one refit multiple use crate vs. multiple crates, material cost savings, and reduce waste.

    M.M. Financial, then space-saving by not accumulating an excess of product.

    M.S., The reduction in manufacturing cost and the conservation of resources. The removal of the need for a case woodworking shop.

    M.W. 1) Utilizing well-built crates for maximum use. These crates are built to last at least ten years of use. 2) Limit the amount of materials used compared to building new crates. J.C.The NGA has a “green” mandate and with our refit program we are contributing to reuse and less waste with our loans.

    K.C. What would you say are the biggest disadvantages to the practice of crate re-use?

    C.A. The amount of space required to hold the crates.

    G.G. There are plenty of disadvantages. Space: You need lots of it. Crates:You need lots of them. Commitment: You need lots of that too!

    R.G. Shipping empty space when the crate is larger than it needs to be.

    M.M. They start to look shoddy after 2-3 uses. You can almost always identify a refit crate.

    M.S. There is the potential to re-use cases that are larger than is necessary for the given object and thus increase transport costs and create handling difficulties under some circumstances. Our method of filling all the voids in cases with foam can result in excessive amounts of foam being required in the event of the case being larger than necessary.

    M.W. You need enough crates in the inventory to match the crating needs of the loan program. It takes just as much labor to maintain the system than building new crates.

    K.C. Are there any additional comments about this practice you would care to make but would rather not attach your name to?

    Anonymous - A crate re-use program does not save on money as much as it saves on materials. It is hard to use existing crates for exhibitions (except for graphics crates) without having too many crates (raising transit costs) whereas custom crates minimize volume of crates for an exhibition. It is better suited for 1-2 pieces in a crate for outgoing loans.