Touring Ron Mueck’s ‘In bed’ is a monumental affair

Crate in the GOMA conservation laboratory being prepared for tour. Photograph: Stuart Fuller | Ron Mueck | In bed 2005 | Mixed media | 161.9 x 649.9 x 395cm | Purchased 2008. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © The artist

The conservator’s public image is most likely of someone cleaning an old painting with a cotton wool swab, in a studio with classical music playing. However, art conservation — particularly contemporary art conservation — calls for an innovative and creative approach to the unique challenges presented by contemporary display preparation.

Preparing fragile and complex art works for travel is a collaborative approach between the Gallery’s conservators, workshop staff and installation teams. The regional tour of In Bed by Ron Mueck is a monumental undertaking due to the artwork’s size and the logistical requirements for travelling a sculpture of this nature long distances to small venues. These specialised requirements make this tour one of the Gallery’s most significant investments to-date in a regional Queensland touring program. In preparing for the Gallery’s regional tour conservators have provided recommendations on the design of the crate fit-out and install and will also work through a finely tuned installation sequence at each venue.


In bed comprises a number of different components — the head and shoulders, the duvet and duvet cover, the body and the pillows and pillow cases — all of which are packed into four very large and heavy crates that can only be lifted with a forklift or moved with a pallet jack.

The crates needed to be fully collapsible to allow them to fit into the venues and to be stored away during the exhibition. A heavy-duty, facing foil lining was applied to the interior of the crate to act as a barrier against vapours, moisture, wind, heat and dust. The lining comprises eight layers of aluminium foil plastic, paper, glass fibre and a fire-retardant adhesive. This lining also allows the crate to be cleaned with alcohol wipes and provides a tear-resistant surface.

The crates’ exteriors were painted so they are easier to see, to keep clean and to protect the wood and repel moisture. Seals were applied to the edges of the panels to keep out moisture and air. Specialised heavy-duty, clear, plastic, rain jackets were also made for the crates because, at some venues, they will have to be unloaded outdoors before they can be moved into loading docks. Heavy-duty castors were also put on the bottom of all of the crates so they can be easily moved without dollies or pallet jacks.

Crate after preparation for the tour. Photograph: Mark Sherwood


Before the duvet cover could go on tour, it needed a little attention. Some of the seams in the cover had split because of the pressure the duvet exerts on the cover while the work is installed and on display. The seam was repaired by the Gallery’s textile conservator. Repairs were done both by hand and using a machine. Because of the size of the work, assistance was required in operating the foot pedal.

Repairing the cover with a sewing machine in the GOMA Conservation Laboratory. Photograph: Danielle Hastie
Repairing the cover using hand stitching. Photograph: Danielle Hastie


A specialised roller system was adapted from a standard pool cover roller to allow the giant duvet to be laid over the sculpture’s body. The roller was required at smaller regional venues where space and staff are limited, thus a system was designed that only relied on a few people to safely install the duvet. The pool roller however needed modifications to allow the duvet to be safely rolled on and off. New adjustable steel legs were built at each end so that the duvet could clear the height of the sculpture’s knees. For stability, the roller is initially set at quite a low height and as the duvet is rolled out the legs are raised so that the duvet can be lifted over the sculpture. Three main alterations were made to the roll. The first involved covering it with an archival non-woven polyethylene fabric to act as a barrier between the metal roll and the artwork. The second involved pads being attached before the hand-wheel at each end of the roll. The third and most important alteration was the addition of padded clamps attached at regular intervals along the length of the roll to help secure the art work. Once the duvet is rolled up, it is wrapped in a calico cover to protect it. The mechanism is then tipped onto its side so the roll can be easily detached from the stands and placed in its travelling crate.

The adapted pool roller. Photograph: Stuart Fuller
The duvet secured to the roll with the black padded clamps. Photograph: Stuart Fuller


Since small creases can betray the scale of In bed, the duvet and cover travel separately and the cover needs ironing before each installation. It is not always possible to iron the cover on tour, so a steamer was tested and proved successful. This now meant that the duvet could be packed with the cover on it, rolled onto the covered metal tube for travel, and steamed before installation at each venue. To enable the crate to be stored as a flat pack and make it easy to remove the duvet and cover, the crate panels had to be detachable. A support structure for the roll is located at each end of the crate and includes the special silver lining. The installation roller was also useful for supporting the duvet while it was packed in its crate for transport. The rods at the end of the roll which fit into the stands can also be used to suspend the rod in the crate.

The empty crate with the rolled duvet and cover next to it. Photograph: Mark Sherwood

In bed is currently on display at KickArts Contemporary Arts in Cairns until 25 March before heading off to Mackay. Over 20 000 visitors have already seen the artwork and we are only half way through the tour!

Installing the duvet at GOMA. Photograph: Natasha Harth
Ron Mueck | In bed 2005 | Mixed media | 161.9 x 649.9 x 395cm | Purchased 2008. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © The artist


Totally tapa: Installing Ngatu tā’uli 2011

Kulupu Falehanga ‘i Teleiloa, New Zealand/Tonga; est. 2010 | Ngatu tā’uli 2011 | Barkcloth: hiapo (paper mulberry) with koka pigment and black synthetic polymer paint / Commissioned 2011. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

Tapa cloths are usually much smaller than Ngatu tā’uli  2011. Its size required a specialised installation technique and system that could address its unique properties and needs.

Following on from our previous post, conservation staff were key additions to the large team installing the Ngatu tā’uli 2011 tapa for ‘Threads: Contemporary Textiles and the Social Fabric’. The tapa is not only enormous but it is also very heavy. The challenge was to provide overall support to the art work with as little intervention as possible — the display ramp and plinth design took this into account.

The first step in the three day installation was to prepare the display plinth, ramp and wall over which the tapa would be draped. A layer of thin foam and cotton flannelette fabric was attached to the top of the plinth and ramp to provide support to the tapa over a large surface area. Numerous strips of soft fabric were sewn together before the tapa arrived; the weave and fibres of the flannelette fabric gently but effectively grab the surface of the tapa without the use of adhesives. Foam and flannelette were also attached to the curved support at the top of the wall, preventing the art work from moving or slipping.

Laying foam and flannelette over the display ramp and plinth
Covering the domed support on top of the wall with foam and flannelette

Velcro strips were stapled to the edges of the ramp to attach to the paper and velcro hinges on the back of the art work. The velcro was attached to the ramp in a horizontal orientation, while the velcro on the tapa itself was adhered in a vertical direction. This was to allow some flexibility where two sides of the velcro would meet.

Horizontal strips of Velcro on the display ramp

The second phase of the installation was unrolling the art work onto the plinth. Care was taken to measure the position of the tapa on the plinth at the beginning of the process, because it would be very difficult to adjust it once it was fully unrolled.

Measuring the position of the tapa as the installation begins

Once the roll reached the wall, it needed to be lifted up using two scissor lifts on each side of the wall so that it could be further unrolled up the wall, which was a slow process. The roll was heavy, so Workshop staff made special cradles to hold it on the lifts while it was being installed. It was important for them to rise simultaneously to keep the art work horizontal at all times.

A custom-made cradle to hold the rolled tapa on scissor lifts during installation
The art work being installed, with scissor lifts either side
The tapa was lifted over the wall and passed to a second set of staff on scissor lifts on the other side
]Unrolling the tapa on the other side of the wall

Once the work was installed, there was some sagging and bulging that needed to be addressed. Tapa cloths are entirely handmade and so have slightly irregular dimensions, which can result in mild undulations. In this case, the vertical flat surface of the wall didn’t allow for these undulations and gave the appearance of bulges. Conservation staff decided to add some additional paper and velcro hinges to the work to provide more support, and to even out the surface appearance.

Undulations in the tapa, which became apparent during installation

Conservators attached hinges in situ using the scissor lifts. Tables with materials and equipment had to be set up on each lift in order for conservators to attach extra hinges.

Conservators attaching hinges in situ

Because the work couldn’t be laid flat while the new hinges were being attached, small conservation-grade irons were needed to dry the adhesive quickly while making sure the bond of the hinge to the tapa was strong. Conservation irons have very small heads and the temperature can be accurately controlled.

Using a conservation-grade iron to attach the paper and velcro hinges to the tapa
Additional hinges were attached to the back of the tapa

The bulges were gradually worked out of the surface as the hinges were attached to the velcro on the wall behind the tapa.

Securing the extra hinges to the wall

The final step was to insert the flat Perspex bar into the casing at the end of the tapa to help it hang flatter. Adjustments often need to be made once an art work is installed for display, so the conservator’s role does not end once the work leaves the Conservation laboratory.

A conservator inserting the flat Perspex bar into the paper casing
The tapa lays flat but still retains some natural undulations / Photographs: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA


Totally tapa: Ngatu tā’uli 2011 conservation treatment

Kulupu Falehanga ‘i Teleiloa, New Zealand/Tonga; est. 2010 | Ngatu tā’uli 2011 / Barkcloth: hiapo (paper mulberry) with koka pigment and black synthetic polymer paint / Commissioned 2011. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

Conservation staff regularly devise unique solutions and techniques to allow large contemporary art works to be safely and elegantly displayed. Here is an insight into the behind-the-scenes work that went towards successfully displaying one of the special acquisitions for GOMA’s 5th Birthday celebrations.

The arrival of the tapa was greatly anticipated, not only due to its majestic style and size but also because it was arriving just a week or so before the opening of ‘Threads: Contemporary Textiles and the Social Fabric’. Due to time constraints, conservators needed to carry out detailed planning to ensure the tapa could be installed as safely and efficiently as possible. Prior to this, Conservation staff prepared all the necessary materials and equipment needed for the install and display of this work, including heavy-weight Japanese tissue, acid-free blotting paper, wheat starch paste, velcro (without a self-adhesive backing), conservation-grade adhesive to adhere the velcro to the paper, thick pressing felts, weights, foam and flannelette sheeting.

Unrolling the tapa to measure it

When the tapa arrived, it was moved into the GOMA Conservation laboratory for treatment, during which we attached paper and velcro support tabs to help spread the weight of the tapa evenly for the duration of its display. (The tabs prevent excessive and uneven pressure being exerted on the art work, which can cause its deformation and even tearing.) The GOMA Conservation lab is designed to accommodate large contemporary works, but the tapa was too long to be fully unrolled, so we worked on sections at a time.

The tapa, unrolled in sections in the GOMA Conservation laboratory

The hinges were made by our Conservation Technician, using Japanese paper conservation techniques. Although tapa is not paper, it has similar properties and so paper conservation methods can be also used for tapa conservation. The hinges, made with heavy-weight Japanese tissue paper and velcro, were constructed before the tapa arrived because they take time to make.

More detailed measurements are taken before the hinges are adhered to the back of the tapa

A conservation-grade adhesive was used to adhere the velcro to the paper, and then starch paste was applied to adhere the hinges to the back of the tapa. Although the paper and starch paste are very strong, the hinges can be easily removed by being slightly moistened with water.

Applying starch paste adhesive to a hinge

Once the hinges are in position, they are covered with weights — this ensures a strong bond, and that the tapa remains flat. They are left to dry overnight.

Blotters, felts, boards and weights over the hinges while they dried
Conservation treatment in progress in the GOMA Conservation laboratory
The hinges after drying
A hinge after drying

Hinges are used because they prevent the tapa looking like it has been directly attached in a line down the wall. They allow the natural undulations in the material to remain, so it appears supported but unrestrained.

The final step was to attach a long, narrow paper casing to the end of the tapa that would hang freely. Our plan was that, if required, once the tapa was installed, a flat Perspex bar could be inserted into the casing. This was to provide some weight to the lower edge to prevent it from moving, just in case the air-conditioning — which comes from vents in the floor — caused it to billow. This was done as a precautionary measure, since we couldn’t be sure how the work would drape once it was installed. The casing couldn’t be attached after the work was installed because the treatment needs to be done with the art work in a flat, horizontal position.

A paper casing, to be attached to the lower edge of the tapa / Photographs: © Liz Wild and Natasha Harth