CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Museum Affairs

Virtual Couriering: An Alternative for More Sustainable Loans?

July, 2023

As for any industry, sustainability is a pressing matter for museums and the art world. In a series of features, CODART will explore this topic and what museums and curators can do. For this article, CODART spoke to several people in the field about the overlooked aspects of virtual couriering and other ways in which museums can deal more sustainably with loan traffic. Registrar Faye Cliné of the Mauritshuis, curator Henrietta Ward of the Fitzwilliam Museum and Constance van Beurden-Zaal of Kortmann Art Packers & Shippers share their experiences and views on this topic.

What are the current trends in sustainable loan traffic, whether or not driven by the pandemic?

Faye Cliné: “We were already working on sustainability at the Mauritshuis, but largely in relation to materials. One improvement is opting for reusable crates instead of custom-made ones, which can generally only be used once. We rent them, as do many other European museums. I have been the registrar at the Mauritshuis for eight years now and this period has seen many changes and improvements. During the pandemic we added virtual couriering to these innovations. Dutch registrars met more frequently to exchange ideas and experiences. All our meetings were suddenly taking place on Teams, and it was then that the idea arose that it must also be possible to arrange the remote supervision of the installation process. I do see virtual couriering as a welcome addition, as part of a package of sustainability options, but it also has its downsides.” Henrietta Ward agrees to this. “I have been a virtual courier on a number of occasions now and have had a mixed experience but have generally found colleagues, such as registrars, conservators and curators, from the borrowing institution to be diligent, attentive, professional and helpful. The biggest issue for me, however, has been the quality of the video and audio – as a virtual courier there’s no way that you can assess an artwork’s condition on a screen, so you are completely reliant on the conservators in the borrowing institution. It’s also like looking with blinkers, you only get to see and hear what the camera allows you to see, which is generally very limited. It is not possible to see what else is happening in the gallery which might impact on the hanging or safety of your object. There have also been occasions where people come and go, you have no idea who they are and have no control over who comes in. There has been an occasion where it was hard to see a painting being hung as there were too many people in the way of the camera – in person you can be much more insistent that people stand back, I feel that the courier has more presence and authority if they are there in person.”

Both Cliné and Ward also state the disadvantage of lost opportunities for networking, research, and visiting exhibitions or viewing possible future loans. Ward: “There is no doubt that in-person courier trips offer the opportunity to establish and maintain relationships with curators and institutions across the world: virtual courier trips make this more difficult as they obviously do not enable the same level of interaction.”

(How) does virtual couriering impact your workload?

Ward: “A positive of virtual couriering is that it does not take up too much of my time: a couple of hours as opposed to 2-3 days if lending to a European institution, longer if further away. With a significant workload, juggling of projects and tasks and a strong desire to get on with my research, I often find it difficult to take time away and I personally find it frustrating to be sitting for days in a truck questioning whether this is the best use of my time.” This workload is transferred to someone in the receiving  museum, however, as Cliné illustrates. “Virtual couriering is much more time-consuming for me. With a traditional procedure, when a loan arrives, I meet with the team – courier, art handlers – and supervise them so that they can get to work. Then they do their job – without any further need for my input. In the case of virtual couriering, I am there the whole time, as a camerawoman. I have to answer questions and constantly supervise their activities. I take over part of the lender’s task. In addition, the documentation is much more comprehensive with virtual couriering – there is far more paperwork. Planning all the virtual couriers is also more complicated – especially if there is a time difference. Within Europe that is fortunately not such a big problem.” Constance van Beurden-Zaal explains that for a transportation company the impact is not as significant. “For us, virtual couriering doesn’t change our workload, but it requires a different way of working. Usually a WhatsApp-group is created for a transport trip, which we use to send lenders photos and updates of the status of the transport. It doesn’t complicate our jobs.”

Is virtual couriering here for good, now that the absolute necessity for it (the pandemic) no longer applies? How do you decide whether to use a virtual or in-person courier?

Van Beurden-Zaal: “I think virtual couriering does have a future. In any case, it has planted a seed in the museums sector to consider this new procedure. During the pandemic it was inevitable, and now it is one of the options, an option that previously did not exist, that museums can use to reduce the environmental impact of loans. However, I have witnessed that many museums have resorted back to pre-pandemic operations.”

Cliné: “Just speaking for the Mauritshuis – now that it is possible to send physical couriers again, we always prefer to do so. We don’t have as much loan traffic as some larger museums – that makes it easier. The value of the artworks to be transported also plays a role in such decisions. Many museums use decision trees to determine the best way to arrange the couriering, including factors relating to the borrowers, insurance, the condition of the work, installation requirements, and transport.” Ward elaborates on this: “The condition of an object is a key consideration and the opinion and advice of the conservator is always sought. Obviously we wouldn’t be lending the object if it was not safe to travel, but if the installation is slightly more involved, difficult or unusual and requires an object to be handled in a certain way then an in-person courier is essential. The value of an object may also be a contributing factor and whether we have lent to that institution in the past. If we haven’t then we will certainly send an in-person courier and if we have experienced problems with an institution in the past or have any concerns then we would also send a courier. If the conservator does not have any concerns, we are very familiar with the borrowing institution and it’s a straightforward install or deinstall then we are more likely to have a virtual courier. For very obvious reasons, virtual couriering was more common in the aftermath of the pandemic and I think virtual couriering will remain an option, but for us it would strictly be on a case-by-case basis. We do recognize that virtual couriering is now a consideration in terms of museums’ sustainability and the environment.”

Where do you see other opportunities for making loan traffic more sustainable?

According to Cliné making loan traffic sustainable is always a question of working out the most efficient and sustainable arrangement on a case-by-case basis. “I think partnerships are key here. We have always tried to arrange combined transportation and shared couriers, but since the pandemic we do so even more often than in the past. We collaborate a lot with the Rijksmuseum, and when both museums are lending works for an exhibition, we will often send a joint courier. It is a prerequisite for such a construction to send a fairly experienced courier. Some museums don’t send a courier at all, not even virtually. This places the entire burden on the borrower – and mutual trust is crucial.” Van Beurden-Zaal agrees that sharing couriers is a great way for museums to be more sustainable regarding loans. She also mentions book-end couriering, which was quite common during the pandemic. It means that the artwork flies unaccompanied but is escorted to and from the airport by a local courier. Another procedure she sees more often is for loans to only be accompanied by a physical courier on the outbound journey, and virtually couriered on the way home. She adds: “As a transportation company we obviously closely follow the developments in electric and hydrogen powered vehicles, as well as in packaging. Our depot is entirely gas-free, and fully powered by solar panels.”

Do you think there is a need for an organized platform for couriers?

Cliné: “That was tried some time ago, before the pandemic – with a fairly ambitious plan devised by an art transportation professional. Eventually it turned out to be difficult to organize, because of the last-minute changes in planning that are not infrequent. In addition, it did not feel right to share sensitive information about loans on a platform of that kind. In my opinion, transporters are best placed to take on a coordinating role in organizing shared couriers and transportation. They have a complete overview of all the journeys to and from museums and their planning. And again, solid partnerships and trust are key here.” Van Beurden-Zaal reacts that transporters and museums are jointly responsible for enabling shared couriers and transportation. “We usually draft a planning and then ask museums if they approve, which is almost always the case.” She emphasizes that using joint couriers is a practice fairly well developed in the Netherlands, but much less often used in other countries. “The Netherlands is very much a forerunner in this aspect. Potentially this is because of the tight-knit registrars network, or because distances between institutions are smaller here. I think it can really serve as an example for museums abroad.”

Ward: “Yes I do think there is a need for an organized platform for couriers, it makes sense to combine resources and help each other out where we can for many reasons not least, time, money and the environment, but only when the circumstances are right, if the courier has the necessary experience and feels comfortable taking on the extra responsibility.”

Cliné ends on a critical note: “When looking at sustainability in museums, the first place we look is at transportation and loan traffic. Insurance and transportation are the most expensive parts of an exhibition, so it is an obvious target. But sustainability in museums cannot be achieved solely by focusing on loan traffic. After all, it starts with deciding which loans to request. Are you set on borrowing a work from overseas? Any loan is by definition a burden on the environment.”

A closing statement that opens a whole new discussion about collection mobility, certainly to be addressed in the near future. If you are interested in contributing to the discussion, please let us know via


Faye Cliné is registrar at the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Henrietta Ward is Curator of Northern European Paintings & Drawings at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Constance van Beurden-Zaal is Manager Museum Logistics at Kortmann Art Packers & Shippers.