Design & Style


Moving masterpieces: French Impressionism from Boston to the NGV.

28 June 2021

Transporting a priceless collection of French Impressionist artwork from Boston to Melbourne requires meticulous planning, including special flight routes, climate-controlled trucks and a serious amount of packaging.

Design & Style


Moving masterpieces: French Impressionism from Boston to the NGV.

28 June 2021

Transporting a priceless collection of French Impressionist artwork from Boston to Melbourne requires meticulous planning, including special flight routes, climate-controlled trucks and a serious amount of packaging.

A summer holiday in Europe may still be off the cards for the time being, but, thanksto the trans-Tasman travel bubble, New Zealanders can experience a slice of France(by way of Boston) at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) this winter.

French Impressionism features a blockbuster collection of more than 100 artworks from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) — including prized paintings by Renoir and Monet — most of which have never been to Australia before.

Curators inspect French Impressionist works at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Conservators from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston must assess and approve each work for travel. Image: Supplied.

But have you ever wondered how world-renowned artworks are moved around the globe? Unsurprisingly, transporting and installing 150-year-old masterpieces is an art within itself.

French Impressionism’s American roots

During the late-1800s and early-1900s, a large concentration of wealthy, American art collectors travelled to France. Because of this, many fine examples of French Impressionist art now reside not in Europe, but at Boston’s MFA.

Bringing the works of Monet to Toulouse-Lautrec and Mary Cassatt (the only American among the French Impressionist cohort) to Australia was an enormous logistical undertaking for the team at the NGV.

NGV’s Melbourne Winter Masterpieces
A video of the NGV’s blockbuster French Impressionism exhibition.
Watch again

As the NGV’s head of conservation, Michael Varcoe-Cocks is well-versed in the intricacies of transporting irreplaceable works of art halfway across the world.

“First, the work must be approved for travel, so the conservators from Boston assess and approve each work. They prepare a report that documents the condition of the artwork, noting any cracks or risks. That report travels with the artwork so we can assess if there’s been any changes after travel,” says Michael.

Once approved for air travel, each work is prepared by specialist packers who put the artwork into a travel frame, which is then wrapped and placed in a museum-standard wooden crate. That crate then goes into another crate before the artwork is transported to the airport for its journey.

“The inside crate is suspended in foam to absorb vibrations. It’s quite a complex system, but it’s a well-documented way to safely transport art around the world,” Michael says.

The sturdy crates protect from physical damage as well as creating a microclimate to protect the art from humidity and temperature fluctuations. Flight routes are selected to minimise these variations but it’s not an exact science.

“We’re trying to move incredibly valuable, fragile and culturally important artworks from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere without changing their environment at all,” says Michael, who adds that the art is always supervised by a team of art professionals and security staff while in transit.

Installing icons

Upon arrival into Australia, specialist art transit trucks fitted with climate control and air ride suspension ensure a smooth ride to the gallery.

Although it must be tempting to open the newly arrived artworks like a child excitedly unwrapping presents on Christmas morning, the team must exercise a degree of restraint. 

“Once the artworks arrive in crates, we don’t immediately open them. We allow them a period of acclimatisation…usually a few days,” Michael explains.

When the artworks are eventually unpacked, conservators carefully inspect each piece to complete a full analysis. Any changes to the artwork are recorded in a condition report. It’s at this stage that many staff members are seeing the art in person for the first time.

Curators install Claude Monet’s Water Lilies at the NGV for the French Impressionism exhibition.

Installation view of Claude Monet Water Lilies, 1905, which will be on display in French Impressionism from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston at NGV International until 3 October 2021. Image: Tim Carrafa.

“To be amongst this amazing selection of art is mind blowing. The quality and calibre of these works from Boston is remarkable,” Michael says.

Dr Miranda Wallace, the NGV’s senior curator of international exhibition projects explains that significant programs such as this are planned years in advance. High-level discussions to bring French Impressionism to Melbourne started about four years ago.

“In the case of this show, [MFA] Boston has been extraordinarily generous with their collection in an unprecedented way. The exhibition includes 79 works that have never been to Australia before – it’s an incredible collection,” Miranda explains.

CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software is used to plan the installation. In the months beforehand, the exhibition space is reconfigured, repainted, and prepared for installation.

Beyond the logistics of fitting the paintings into the space, a coherent, engaging story also needs to be told. Accompanying materials such as labels, multimedia, and audio guides are developed to help audiences identify artists and interpret the stories contained with the artworks.

Miranda explains that this exhibition’s stories are brimming with beauty and joy: “My spirit has been lifted enormously looking at this work. It’s a joyous period of art making. Being able to see these paintings right here on our doorstep is amazing.”

French Impressionism: from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston runs until October 3, 2021 as a part of the NGV’s Melbourne Winter Masterpieces program.

Mercedes-Benz is proud to be a Principal Partner of the National Gallery of Victoria.

By Jo Stewart