When I asked to be trained as a museum courier I envisioned myself wearing all black and using fancy James Bond-type gadgets to relay the coordinates of priceless paintings back to headquarters, aka The Ringling Museum, all the while traveling to exotic destinations located all over the world. I knew taking the job as the newest body guard of our beautiful collection meant that I was also acquiring great responsibility, but I was completely up for the challenge…or so I thought.
I was recently sent on my first mission. Accompanied by three other couriers in training, I shadowed a pro, special agent, or should I say Assistant Curator, Chris Jones, as he escorted La Sultana Rosa, a mid-sixteenth-century painting purchased by John Ringling himself, on her voyage to Brussels. His assignment was to accompany and protect the artwork while in transit.
Starting at 6:45 a.m., we convened at The Museum’s conservation lab, where the portrait of Roxelana, the wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the longest serving ruler of the Ottoman Empire, awaited us. As I watched them delicately place her in the specially-crafted, museum-quality crate that would protect her from the outside elements, I quickly ran through the courier handbook in my mind. Condition reports, packing notes, and shipping papers. I had studied the guidebook and I knew what my duties as a courier were and I thought I was ready for anything. But what my hands-on learning experience taught me is that everything is not listed in the manual.
So, as I am now a recent graduate of courier preparation, here are my tips for a successful trip.
Download a great playlist. Most of your time as a courier is spent in transit, so be prepared. Whether it is on the road or in the air, you will find yourself traveling for long periods of time. Our trip began with a three hour drive to the Miami airport, made longer by traffic of course. Packed into a Chevrolet Cruze, the four trainees followed the climate controlled truck containing our girl down Alligator Ally. As our official D.J., trainee Ellie Bloom selected a wide array of energizing tunes that made our long journey feel…well, not as long.
Expect the Unexpected. Sure this sounds cliché, but it’s the truth. While the handbook describes the perfect courier situation, I learned that you have to be ready for anything, like the funeral procession that just happened to cut us off as we attempted to follow our truck from the inspection warehouse to the airport. Don’t worry, we eventually caught up.
Don’t get in the way. As a courier, your job is to stay with the crate containing your artwork whenever possible. You are there to make sure the object is safe and arrives at its destination in one piece. However, while standing in a hectic airport cargo facility, be aware of your surroundings. Busy men and women will be driving forklifts nearby, moving large freight objects, classic cars, and sometimes live animals throughout the warehouse.
While you need to be sure your painting has been packed safely onto its pallet and isn’t in any danger from that race horse being shipped to Saudi Arabia, you also want to let the airport staff do their jobs, which consists of covering your crate in plastic and netting and tying it down.
Bring a snack. Your eyes should always be on your crate, until it has been loaded onto the plane of course. So, no you can’t snap a selfie leaning against that vintage blue BMW that’s being shipped to London or grab a burger from the restaurant around the corner. You must stay focused and with your painting at all times. You also cannot leave or board the plane until you are 100% sure that your painting has already been loaded onto the right plane. Sometimes this process can take hours. From a sea of paperwork to watching the crate tied down to its pallet, it took about three hours before it was carefully driven onto the tarmac and moved into the plane.
Check your hotel room. Our training ended at the cargo facility with the palletization of our painting. We jotted down the pallet number and took a few photos for documentation and then finally waved goodbye to Chris, whose journey had only just begun as he was off to Brussels with La Sultana. We, however, were confronted with an evening in Miami. After getting used to “city” driving, we found ourselves facing a hotel room with no hot water and a serious ant problem. After a series of attempts to cancel the room with the rude hotel receptionist, we were finally able to get the heck out of there. We spent the evening searching for a new room and finally crashed around midnight.
Explore the city. Occasionally, as a courier, you will find yourself with some down time. Take advantage and explore your surroundings. Sightsee around the city, visit as many museums and hot spots as you can, and chow down on the local cuisine. Although you are normally exhausted and jetlagged, my advice is to hit the streets. We spent the rest of our trip eating Cuban food and visiting as many museums as possible, including the Pérez Museum, the Rubell Collection, the Bass Museum, the Margulies Collection, and the De la Cruz collection.
While life as a museum courier is not as glamorous as I once expected, it is an important job that should not be taken lightly. Overseeing the packing, transport, unpacking, condition reporting, and installation of a priceless artifact is nothing to sneeze at. The best advice I can give any wanna-be museum courier is to be patient. It consists of hours of travel, hours of watching your crate, and hours of well just standing around a large airport warehouse. Be ready for anything and you’ll be fine. As with life, a courier trip is like a box of chocolates you just never know what you are gonna get.
So, where will I be off to next…