Virtual couriering enables the remote supervision of a loan or return process for an object on loan and can be used alongside or in place of a human courier. It entails using different forms of technology to livestream or record some or all of the processes involved in installation or deinstallation, including transport, unloading, condition checks, unpacking, or other handling, with staff on the ground liaising with the virtual courier, registrar or other specialist by video link.
The model existed pre-pandemic but was adopted more widely to enable loans and returns to continue after lockdowns forced UK museums to close, beginning in March 2020.
Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) used virtual couriering almost throughout the pandemic, making its first virtual return in August 2020.
“Virtual couriering enabled us to keep going and install several exhibitions in a very safe manner,” says HRP registrar Rebecca Wallace. “We used it for the Gold and Glory exhibition at Hampton Court. We had someone on a video call and one of our team would be holding the camera – usually a mobile phone or tablet – so that they could see us unpacking and working through the condition report with them.”
Two years on from the first UK lockdown, and with global and domestic travel returning to normal, it looks likely that virtual couriering is one pandemic-driven change that will be retained.
“We’ve all got a lot more comfortable with tech over the last couple of years, partly because we’ve had to, but also because we’ve seen the possibilities of doing things in a more efficient and effective way,” Wallace says.
Pre-Covid, sending out loans or returning works of art was very labour-intensive, but with virtual couriering there is no need to pay for someone to accompany an object in transit.
“The travelling associated with an international loan could take me away from my desk for a week,” says Lizzie O’Neill, digital collections manager at The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow. “Virtual couriering takes up just a couple of hours.”
Virtual couriering reduces a loan’s climate impact, says Kathy Richmond, head of collections and applied conservation at Historic Environment Scotland: “The object still needs to travel, but the reduction in courier travel helps to minimise the transport. Small changes can make a big difference.”
Yet adapting to remote supervision and directing others via technology can be quite stressful. One problem can be lack of control over the condition-checking process.
“Someone receiving your object might have the relevant information but it’s not quite the same as being there yourself,” O’Neill says. “We had a visualiser installed during lockdown, affording us remarkable high-res, close-up views. I hope that someone somewhere is busy working away on tech that will enable us to see things even more clearly and in 3D.”
You gotta have a plan
Virtual couriering is not an automatic cost-saver either: more staff are needed at the receiving end to help with filming and relay instructions.
And if the intention is to film at the shipment stage, then security issues loom large: filming at airports and ports can be restricted, so access arrangements need to be negotiated well ahead of time.
Museums wanting to add the virtual courier option to their toolkit should ensure a robust decision-making framework is part of their loan-planning process to weigh up which form of courier they need, says Eloise Stewart, chair of the UK Registrars Group.
“It is vital to assess case-by-case. An assessment should consider standard and specific areas including conservation, logistics, handling and display requirements, and address other possible relevant areas such as insurance.
It is also key for museums to develop a clear understanding of the planning required, tech platforms and roles of different types of couriers – in-person, virtual or a blended model.”
The updated Courier Training Framework, developed by members of European registrar groups, includes a section on virtual couriers and highlights many of the key issues.
Stewart says: “There will still be scenarios where an in-person courier will be the most appropriate option, but the virtual courier is now part of the working vocabulary and an invaluable option that continues to be developed.”
Julie Nightingale is a freelance writer