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Installing David Bowie Is...

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Behind every David Bowie Is… install, there’s a meticulous Registrar and a pair of gloves.

Over 300 objects and costumes from David Bowie’s archive rolled into our gallery in July 2015. The exhibition had already been in London, Toronto, Sao Paulo, Berlin, Chicago and Paris before coming here. Not only are many of the objects pretty much priceless but are also incredibly delicate after years of performance and wear and tear. 

Whether it's handling marionettes from DreamWorks Animation or draping mannequins in iconic Hollywood Costumes, it's the registrars job to carefully handle all the priceless artefacts on display. Assistant Registrar Holly Robbins speaks with me about the months of painstaking planning and detail required to make the complex install go smoothly.

Describe the role of the Registrar?

In terms of Exhibitions, registrars are tasked with safely bringing in the objects and getting them installed. This means we’re doing a lot of work behind the scenes to negotiate loan agreements, organise insurance and freight, and coordinate with installation crews and conservators to plan installations. We’re there to make sure that the Lender’s specifications regarding the display of their objects are followed and that everything is handled and installed correctly and safely. Another big part of our job is to make sure that our crew is keeping to the schedule so that we’re able to finish the installation on time; if we encounter delays in one area, we need to be able to quickly switch gears to keep things moving.

How do you go about planning such a huge exhibition such as David Bowie is…?

Installing a show as complex and layered as this is a bit like putting together a massive puzzle; you have to look at all the different elements and determine the best order to install the objects, props and AV components. For instance, you never want someone to be working over an object that’s been installed, so if a projector or monitor needs to be placed in the vicinity of an object, we work out the best sequencing to minimise double handling and risk. I spent a lot of time with the Exhibition Coordinator and AV team going over the floor plans and coming up with a detailed schedule which ironed out how and when each section of the show would be installed. We didn’t always follow it exactly, but all the planning meant that we were able to be flexible and identify alternative areas to keep working in if we encountered any delays.

What happens after the crate is opened?

Once a crate is opened, our conservators and a courier from the lending institution examine the contents. Together, they complete a condition report which travels with the work and provides a conservation and display history of the object. They’re looking for any signs of change in condition or damage that could have occurred during transit from the previous venue. The object is installed once this process is complete.

What were some of the challenges you were faced with?

Although it is quite a large gallery, once it filled up with crates and staff, the amount of working space became pretty limited. This is where all of our planning was really important as we needed to identify safe areas where different teams could work without stepping on each other’s toes. It also meant that coordinating the collection of empty crates to be taken away for storage was crucial in order to keep the gallery as accessible as possible.

We’re handling a lot of details and sensitive information, and working with a lot of different people, so managing relationships is always delicate but rewarding. Installing exhibitions is never without some level of risk so it’s important to be able to maintain a degree of calm and level-headedness to handle issues or setbacks as they arise. It’s really important to have a good plan of attack in place, but also to be able to be flexible if there are changes or delays to the schedule (there always are).

What is your favorite part of being a Registrar for an exhibition like David Bowie Is…?

After months of planning the installation and looking at photos of the objects, it was exciting to finally see them in person. I felt really lucky to have the opportunity to take an up-close look at everything in the show. We were working with a wonderful team from the V&A who had traveled with the show to quite a few previous venues, so it was great to hear about their experiences from those installs and to learn more of the history of the objects and costumes. 

What do you see that the audience doesn’t get to see?

Registrars are in quite a privileged position as we get to handle the objects and see some of the details that may not be visible to viewers once the object has been installed. For example, the bangle worn by the mannequin in the Ziggy Coffin had “Angie” engraved on the inside, something that was hidden from view. It’s also really special to see the transformation from an empty gallery on day one of installation into the final, fully-lit exhibition ready for opening night.