Shelley Langdale

Shelley Langdale
Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings,
Philadelphia Museum of Art


One of the perks of being a curator at a collecting institution is that you are occasionally called upon to accompany works of art to fellow museums for special exhibitions.

About 12 years ago, when I was working for a museum in Boston, I had to take a painting to a museum in Pesaro, Italy. It was the first time I had ever had to fly with a work of art in a cargo plane. The painting was over 7 feet tall, and when packed in its crate it wouldn’t fit into the standard hold of a passenger plane. The only cargo plane that could accommodate both the painting and myself, left from New York City, so I had to leave Boston at 6 AM to load the crate onto the truck, drive to the cargo terminal in New York, unload and secure the crate onto a pallet, and complete all the paperwork before they stopped accepting shipments. When we arrived in New York, we got word that the flight wouldn’t leave until 2 AM, so I was dropped off at a nearby hotel to shower and sleep. When I went downstairs, around 11:30 PM, the lobby was mobbed with people whose flights had been canceled due to a British Airways strike.

After navigating the angry crowds, I was escorted to the terminal where I watched as my crate was loaded into the cargo bay of the plane, along with the most extraordinary array of cargo I had ever seen, including several horses, baby chicks, other animals, a fancy sports car, and vast amounts of consumer goods. I then climbed past the cargo up a ladder to one of several large but windowless business-class— type seats that were located ten feet or so behind the pilots. We finally took off in the middle of the night, stopping in Chicago (yes, I know that is the wrong direction, but there are only so many cargo flights per week), where we had a several-hour layover while they loaded and unloaded cargo. We finally took off for Rome around 8 AM. I had now had maybe three or four hours of sleep since I left Boston, 26 hours earlier. One of the pilots kindly showed me how to microwave some food and offered me use of the pilot’s bunk in the back of the cockpit if I wanted to lie down for a bit.

When we approached the runway in Rome, the pilots invited me to sit in an extra seat in the cockpit so that I could watch the plane land, which was amazing. In Rome we were met by two groups of workmen at the terminal who fought over which crew was going to offload my crate. Much yelling (in that emphatic, earnest way that Italians express themselves), frantic puffing on cigarettes, and gesturing ensued. Finally, the Italian broker who had met me at the plane managed to get the pallet unloaded, but then hours passed while we waited for the customs agent to finally come and attach the little seal of approval to my crate. Two truck drivers arrived with a tiny European truck into which my crate just barely fit. I squeezed between the two drivers, and we drove all night along winding mountain roads to Pesaro. The drivers spoke no English, and they kept stopping for espressos at roadside cafes despite my efforts to convince them otherwise in my rusty Italian, made worse by lack of sleep. At this point I had truly lost all track of time and even of what day it was. Several times during the nine-hour trip I woke up embarrassed because I had fallen asleep on one of the truckers’ shoulders.

We finally reached Pesaro very early in the morning, before the museum was open. After a few hours, some of the museum employees came to greet us and it was determined that my crate would not fit through the doorway to the exhibition space. They proposed that we open the crate in the parking lot and carry the painting, which by itself would fit through the doorway, into the old palace that housed the museum. I explained, to the best of my ability, that there was no way I was going to allow this 16th-Century painting to be unpacked in the open air of the parking lot. After several more hours of negotiating and further delays, one of the employees came back with five art handlers he had rounded up. I agreed to have them carry the crate carefully into the hallway of the museum, which was closed to the elements, and to unpack the crate on its side instead of flat, using the utmost caution. The only other option was to take the painting back to Boston on the next flight.

Once the painting was unpacked, I examined it with their conservators. Everything looked fine, though I did have to ask one of the examiners to remove the burning cigarette from his mouth while he leaned over the painting, lest any ashes fall on it. I was also dismayed that their “climate control” for the gallery consisted of one room humidifier. Italian institutions tend to view American museums as overly obsessed with state-of-the-art environmental controls, feeling that many paintings have been in palaces and grand buildings in Europe for generations and survived, so we should relax. This attitude seems to extend from their more relaxed approach to life in general, particularly when it comes to their sense of time and schedules. But at long last I installed the painting and made sure it was securely attached to the wall and properly lit – I even succeeded in persuading my Italian colleagues to turn the humidifier on immediately.

I don’t exactly recall at what time I completed this task, to be honest. It was sometime in the early evening when they dropped me off at the hotel, which to my shock was actually located directly on the beach facing the Adriatic Sea. The next two days were sort of a blur. In the end I spent nearly as much, if not more, time traveling to Pesaro as I had free time to spend there.

Philadelphia Museum of Art