Jesse Moffatt on How to Move 500-year-old Pianos

As director of collections at the National Music Centre he can also explain how to move room-sized organs and a rock ‘n’ roll recording bus.

Photo by Shelley Arnusch

You think your last move was hard? Imagine if you had to move an entire museum’s worth of historic pianos, synthesizers and at least one mobile recording studio bus, each with specific requirements in regards to conservation and preservation. That’s the task at hand for the collections department at the National Music Centre, which is currently based out of a heritage building on the corner of Macleod Trail and 11th Avenue S.E. With the NMC’s new home in the Studio Bell building (the architectural marvel anchoring the southwest corner of the East Village) just months away from completion, we caught up with the captain of the move, NMC’s director of collections Jesse Moffatt, to see how things are going.

Frankly, this move sounds like a nightmare. Just moving one piano is more than people can handle. You guys have a whole museum’s worth. What’s the process like?

“In a word, lengthy. We’ve been planning for a couple years now. I guess the difference between moving a collection of artifacts versus moving your home is that it’s 90 per cent planning and 10 per cent execution.”

You’re only moving a couple blocks, but you can’t exactly just toss things in boxes and cart them over, can you?

“It’s very, very precise, right down to the inventory control, when an object leaves the building and the duration it’s outside the building, because when you’re dealing with artifacts you have to take into consideration the temperature and the relative humidity changes. We basically have to mirror the environment from our existing building to the new building. We’re doing a direct move, which means we’re giving ourselves a two-hour window to get certain items from our existing building to the new building because that’s within conservation standards. Anything beyond that two hours, means that the environment’s changed, so you’d have to condition the instrument back in and it’s just a whole other game.”

Who sets those conservation standards?

“We work closely with the Canadian Conservation Institute out of Ottawa and there’s a lot of literature out there, so you look at that literature and say, okay, what meets our needs? How can we do this in a responsible way?

Anyone who has done the collection tour is probably wondering about that massive silent-movie organ. How are you moving that thing?

“Well, the Kimball needed a restoration, so we thought this was a good opportunity and it’s currently being done in Saskatchewan. Although we have the in-house expertise, we just didn’t have the time or the capacity to do it at this time. So we shipped it out to Saskatoon and it’s being restored and then it will be shipped back – in pieces, let’s say that – and they will do the installation for us.”

Other than the Kimball, what’s proving to be the most challenging piece to move?

“Some of our early instruments are challenging – not because of weight, not because of size, but simply because the environmental conditions have to be perfect. That two-hour window, means you really have to dot your i‘s and cross your t‘s. The earliest instrument dates to 1560; the second oldest dates to 1591. When you’re responsible for artifacts of that nature you definitely don’t want to be the person where it slipped out of your hands.

The largest item we have in the collection is the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording studio. It’s a 32-foot-long bus. This goes back to the design phase of the building to make sure everything fit in. The last thing you want is to have plans with the exhibitions team and not communicate to the architectural team that in fact you’re going to put a 32-foot bus in there.”

I suppose you can’t just fire up the bus and drive it over.

“Yeah, with artifacts you probably wouldn’t want to insure it and drive it anyways. Also when you’re storing a vehicle permanently on the inside of a building you have to decommission it so you have to take all the flammable fluids out and everything, so it’s been decommissioned and will be moved on a flatbed and winched into place, then we had custom dollies made to go underneath it so we can ease it into position.”

At this point is there a set-in-stone move-in date?

“Well, collections are always the last thing to go in, so it’s dependent on the construction schedule staying on track. And then the exhibit fabricators come in and build all the exhibits and then we come in and not only move the objects but we’re responsible for the actual installation. We’re the ones who actually dress the mannequins.”

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