A behind-the-scenes look at transporting artifactsAfter touring museums in California, Georgia, and Texas, an exhibition of 2,000-year-old terra cotta warriors from the tomb of China’s first emperor arrived at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC, in November 2009. Though many enthused museumgoers will line up, tickets in hand, to see the Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor over the next few months, many workers who prepared the exhibit—including those who transported it—were just as excited.

The exhibit displays 15 full-size terra cotta figures and 100 pieces of art, including armor, a bronze crane and swan, coins, a terra cotta horse, jade ornaments, and weapons. Visitors will find themselves face to face with archers, an armored soldier, a cavalryman, a chariot driver, infantrymen, and officers—as well as a court official, musicians, a stable attendant, and a strongman. The exhibit also displays building materials and small-scale models that show how terra cotta warriors and horses were made.

The UPS Foundation helped fund the exhibit’s journey, and UPS transported the pieces from China, to four museums in the United States, and back. Dave Csontos, director of Operations, UPS Freight Truckload, explained, “The most significant aspect of the exhibit is that it contains the largest group of Level-1 [China’s highest classification of artifact importance and rarity] terra cotta works China has ever loaned to the United States. Many of the artifacts are in prime condition. Some of the figures weigh over 400 lbs. The horse crate was massive, and the most challenging to move, requiring multiple people and sometimes a forklift.”

PRC and US museum specialists handled the packing and unpacking of the artifacts. Once the items were crated, UPS loaded the 42 wooden crates onto trailers and a plane, flew them to the United States, and transported the shipment to its US destinations: the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California; High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia; Houston Museum of Natural Science in Houston, Texas; and National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC. Csontos explained that because the artifacts are extremely fragile and sensitive to temperature changes, a team of museum experts worked with UPS to develop the transportation precautions: “First, the trailers needed to be temperature controlled. Traveling from day to night, across deserts and mountains—the artifacts would experience massive temperature and climate changes. Second, vibrations were a main concern, so we used rubber mats to help insulate the shipment from vibrations. Third, the trailers use a high-end suspension ‘air-ride’ system.” UPS also contracted a security firm to guard the shipment while it was in the company’s care. “We were overcautious. And it’s better to be overcautious than not cautious enough,” Csontos explained. For the ground shipments, UPS selected 10 experienced drivers who signed up for the special mission. The drivers—two per truck—rotate and travel continuously except for fueling.

Csontos was present at the shipment’s arrival in Atlanta. “The part I remember most was when the truck doors opened and everyone could see the crates lined up perfectly. It’s hard to describe the anxiety you feel before then. Standing there with the four drivers that drove from California to Georgia was amazing. When I looked at the four employees’ faces after the doors opened, I saw a sense of pride and accomplishment. They saw they did their job well and were smiling ear to ear.”

UPS is no stranger to shipping items that require special care. In 2006, the company transported two whale sharks from Taipei, Taiwan, to Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium on a specially configured UPS B-747 freighter. And from October 2006 through 2009, UPS shipped hundreds of art works from Paris’s Musee du Louvre to Atlanta’s High Museum for nine exhibitions.

UPS has also worked with China for some time. In its biggest project, UPS was the official logistics and express delivery sponsor of the Beijing 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Like the Olympics, the terra cotta warrior exhibit places China in the spotlight.

Washington-based readers can catch the Guardians of China’s First Emperor at the National Geographic Museum until March 31.

[author] Paula M. Miller is associate editor of the China Business Review. [/author]

Posted by Paula M. Miller