Challenges in Exhibition Preparations During COVID-19 Pandemic (Aprille Tijam, ITP 2019, Philippines)
Written by Aprille P. Tijam, Senior Manager, Exhibitions and Collections, Ayala Museum (ITP 2019, Philippines)
Earlier in December 2021, the Ayala Museum in the Philippines had its soft opening to the public presenting exhibitions in six gallery spaces out of nine. These exhibitions were received with mostly positive reactions from the audience who made the trip to the museum for the past weeks—accepting new entry guidelines in compliance with COVD-19 safety protocols: advance booking with timed slots beginning 11:00 AM until 7:30 PM, observing maximum capacity limit per exhibition gallery, wearing of face masks, presentation of full vaccination card, among others. These new protocols were not seen as obstacles to the excitement of “experiencing” the newly renovated Ayala Museum, and the enthusiasm to visit again a museum after almost two years of continued lockdowns in Philippines.
Working on the preparations for these inaugural exhibitions were challenges that I would never have imagined happening. The COVID-19 pandemic escalated causing disruptions to the ongoing museum renovations that began mid-2019. The series of lockdowns prevented us from working regularly onsite, getting afflicted with COVID myself, delays in renovation activities due to late arrivals of supplies from overseas, all transactions were conducted online which posed another layer of communication challenge, most especially that major aspects of exhibition preparations require in-person discussions and activities, to include moving objects, gallery preparations, transfer of museum collections from offsite storage to the museum, working with a small installation team, and more.
The original date for re-opening was in July 2020, which had to be moved to 2021. There were extensive deliberations on the decision on when to re-open, constantly readjusting schedules as the COVID-19 situation in the country continued to be unpredictable like in most parts of the world. Cases of COVID afflictions reached its highest peak in September 2021 with more than 22,000 count per day.
All these made me re-think and appreciate how museums need to continuously adapt to the changing times, pivoting fast to make the workflow flexible. The exhibition preparations were overwhelmingly challenging—having to work with numerous restrictions, where of utmost importance was protecting one’s health while in the conduct of business. However, work on the exhibition preparations continued to be a source of excitement, self-evaluation, and learning. And one of the most notable exhibitions that I extensively worked on during these unprecedented times was Intertwined: Transpacific, Transcultural Philippines.
It was curated by Ayala Museum’s former Director, Florina H. Capistrano-Baker, Ph.D., who worked remotely with us while she resides in New York. She describes: “this exhibition aims to illuminate the Filipino’s transcultural heritage resulting from pre-and post-colonial maritime exchanges with diverse cultures in Asia, America, and Europe. The arrival of Spanish colonizers in the sixteenth century extended ancient trade networks in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, stretching these across the Pacific to Spanish America, thence to Europe. With Manila as the fulcrum of this early global exchange, local societies imported and exported materials, objects, and concepts that mutated in myriad ways in complex multidirectional circulations of culture.”
More than 240 objects and artworks from the 8th to 20th century from the Ayala Museum collection and borrowed from twenty-six local, private and institutional lenders in the Philippines, including the Ayala Corporation, Bank of the Philippine Islands, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, Intramuros Administration, and the Lopez Museum, are featured in this exhibition. My primary work focused on managing loan processing, which became more complex with conversations happening mostly online. Digital sign off became widely accepted due to the situation. However, select lenders still preferred printed loan documentations, and some took time to respond as not all work online and are not desk bound, or were working from home, or were overseas. Time to route documents to museum signatories and lenders in their respective homes had to be allotted. Couriers on motorbike became one of the reliable means to facilitate this. Insurance coverage had to be processed in sets, in consideration that all valuations are not confirmed and received at one time, and certificate of cover need to be released in time prior to proceeding to the succeeding steps. Costs were escalating due to time extended covering all the preparations.
The next challenge was the timing of packing and transfer of artworks from the more than twenty lenders vis-à-vis lockdowns implemented by the Philippine government. Most of the objects to be borrowed were in private homes, which was a concern for possible COVID-19 exposure to both the museum team and the homeowners. Most of them were gracious to welcome us in their homes despite the situation. One lender alone loaned more than 70 artworks that needed careful and meticulous packing and transfer. This required a professional team of packers and movers. For loans with a manageable number of artworks, the museum team composed of three, including myself, undertook the packing and transfer. Further, exhibition designs and components were mostly done via zoom meetings, with all floor plans and mount designs going back and forth online. Face to face and onsite meetings would have worked better than online meetings—being able to see the space, discuss the idiosyncrasies of the space vis-à-vis the content of the exhibition, and the body language that plays a significant role in many collaborations. However, my colleagues and I had to adjust and proceeded with discussions online.
With COVID-19 protocols easing by end of October 2021, this allowed my colleagues and I to work semi-full time, four hours per day only every day for four weeks, on the ingress of the Intertwined exhibition. It was refreshing to be able to work onsite again, get to feel and understand the new spaces we have to work with after undergoing renovations, interact with museum colleagues in-person after two years of not seeing each other, and deal with all exhibition installation challenges in situ—converse with showcase suppliers, security systems, conservation issues, lighting components, graphics, etc. The Intertwined exhibition is one of the six exhibitions now open to the public.
Now, I continue to coordinate and work online with museum registrars from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts; Hispanic Society of America, New York; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York for loans and shipment to the Philippines. Important historical objects and artworks from these collections in the United States will be added to the Intertwined exhibition by end of January 2022. I wait for changes that may happen to international travel guidelines to be observed by inbound passengers, as we expect couriers to accompany these loans and shipments from the United States.